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5 futuristic ways to pave roads, from solar panels to recycled plastic

What could be next?

road paved with recycled plastic
U.K. startup MacRebur paves roads with recycled plastic.

From cracks to potholes, there’s a lot that could go wrong with roads as time goes on. While some places are confronting these headaches by simply reverting back to gravel roads, other cities are open to trying out new ideas from scientists and engineers. And in 2017, there are a lot of those going around.

Whether the goal is to patch streets up more efficiently or harness them for greater public good, here are the road-transforming ideas you should know.

Solar roads

Solar Roadways

The premise is simple and almost too good to be true: Cover your roads with solar panels and reap bountiful green energy. Since launching a viral crowdfunding campaign a few years ago for their hexagonal glass solar panels, Idaho company Solar Roadways has finally begun a number of test trials on real roads, including a sidewalk near a rest stop in Conway, Missouri, and a public installation at the Jeff Jones Town Square in Sandpoint, Idaho. There are also similar pilot projects by SolaRoad in the Netherlands and Wattway in France.

Paving roads with pig manure...

Pig manure as paving material? Scientists at North Carolina A&T State University think it can be done. In fact, they’ve already filed a patent for the process of combining swine manure with sand or gravel to form a new paving aggregate. In this way, pig waste, which threatens to contaminate water supplies in addition to being a general nuisance, can be handled in a much more sustainable fashion.

And recycled plastic...

MacRebur roads in Gloucester, England.

In the case of recycled plastic roads, the future is now. U.K. startup is already working with a number of local municipalities on enhancing asphalt roads with tiny pellets of plastic made from recycled bottles, thereby reducing the amount of fossil fuel bitumen in the mix. The company claims the result is 60 percent stronger, longer-lasting, and more eco-friendly than traditional roads.

And cigarette butts

cigarette butts in road Lindsay Fox/Wikipedia

City streets are already littered with cigarette butts, but in the future, they could literally be paved with them. Abbas Mohajerani, a Melbourne engineer who previously turned cigarette butts into normal-looking bricks, has also developed a way to mix cigarette butts into asphalt. This process does the double duty of trapping toxic waste while reducing the heat conduction of the pavement.

Embedding roads with sensors

No stranger to the smart city game, Kansas City, Missouri, is now teaming up with startup Integrated Roadways to explore sensor-laden roads. The idea is that by embedding roads with data-collecting sensors, the city can obtain information on usage, speeds, and vehicle weight, which can then guide maintenance efforts and transportation policy. This technology could also later assist with the navigation, communication, and power of self-driving cars.