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How Graphene is Poised to Double the Life Span of Asphalt

You wouldn’t think the world’s thinnest material—measuring all of a whopping one-atom in thickness—would be an ideal material to mix into something that’s quite literally going to be run over by a truck.

Yet two Italian companies have demonstrated that a graphene-enhanced asphalt additive can help create a new surface that the companies claim can significantly improve both the durability and sustainability of roads. Going by the trade name “Eco Pave” and co-developed by Directa Plus and Iterchimica, the innovation may just help cash-strapped municipalities repave crumbling highways and byways in a budget- and earth-smart way.

Working Wonders at Ground Level

Despite only gaining widespread commercial application in the last decade, crystal graphene has quickly established a reputation as a “wonder material.”

graphene molecule
Graphine is so small that it’s considered a 2D material, but it’s 200 times stronger than steel.

It’s harder than diamond and 200 times stronger than steel, all while being so thin that it’s considered a “2D” material. It can act as both a conductor and an astonishingly effective barrier. Helium, which is so minuscule it has just two protons, can’t even pass through it. (Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, why the United Kingdom’s University of Manchester has 200 researchers pursuing graphene-related science.)

Thanks to a joint research and development project in 2017, Directa Plus and Iterchimica initiated lab-based and small-scale trials that discovered their graphene-enhanced asphalt was “less susceptible to hardening and cracking in cold temperatures as well as to softening in warm temperatures,”  ideal thermal properties for roadways. And Eco Pave’s elasticity and strength, the companies say, could be particularly useful for reducing wear in high-load spots (such as pothole repair, which is a near-universal maintenance headache experienced by transportation officials worldwide).

What’s more, future road surfaces built with Eco Pave will be recyclable, which offers a powerful dual environmental benefit: Worn asphalt can be kept out of landfills, and less bitumen (commonly referred to as “tar”) would need to be collected as residue from crude oil.

The Next Stop? Making the Financial Case

“High-performance” and “sustainable” are sure to be attractive watchwords to municipal buyers. But “affordable” is likely to pique even more interest, since simply maintaining U.S. highways and bridges alone is expected to cost taxpayers $65.3 billion a year through 2030.

That’s the next logical proof point that Directa Plus and Iterchimica will have to work toward for Eco Pave. The companies claim they can produce the material at a “commercially viable selling price,” and are currently pursuing a pilot test of several kilometers of roadway to facilitate more robust testing.

“This super-additive containing Graphene Plus demonstrates that it is possible to create sustainable and highly-performant road surfaces,” explained Iterchimica CEO Federica Giannattasio in a news release announcing results from initial testing. “The next step is to partner with an organization that manages and builds roads to create the test routes that will validate the performance benefits of Eco Pave and lead to the eternal roads of the future.”

Even if “eternal roads” seems a bit overly ambitious, Eco Pave may already have a sufficiently powerful financial argument on its side: The co-developers believe Eco Pave can double the average life span of a road surface to 12-14 years from the current average of 6-7 years, saving municipalities considerable maintenance costs each year.

On what other surfaces could an amazingly strong, light, thin and flexible material like graphene work its considerable magic?

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About the Author

Joseph Gaitens

Joseph Gaitens is a contributor to the Innovation, Inspiration & Ideas blog. Based in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, he serves as a freelance copywriter and brand communication strategist for clients that range from small start-ups to Fortune 100 companies. Joseph’s experience covers a broad spectrum of industries, from high-tech and manufacturing to healthcare and consumer products.

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