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WORCESTER, MASS.—A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is developing a solar collector that could use the heat generated by asphalt roads and parking lots as an alternative energy source for electricity and hot water. The project was undertaken at the request of Michael Hulen, president of Novotech, Inc., in Acton, Mass, which holds a patent on the concept of using the heat absorbed by pavements. Research is being directed by Rajib Mallick, WPI associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

In August, team member Bao-Liang Chen, a Ph.D. candidate at WPI, presented the results of research aimed at evaluating the potential for transforming stretches of asphalt into a cost-effective energy source at the annual symposium of the International Society for Asphalt Pavements in Zurich, Switzerland. The study looks not only at how well asphalt can collect solar energy, but at the best way to construct roads and parking lots to maximize their heat-absorbing qualities.

"Asphalt has a lot of advantages as a solar collector," Mallick said. "For one, blacktop stays hot and could continue to generate energy after the sun goes down, unlike traditional solar-electric cells. In addition, there is already a massive acreage of installed roads and parking lots that could be retrofitted for energy generation, so there is no need to find additional land for solar farms. Roads and lots are typically resurfaced every 10 to 12 years and the retrofit could be built into that cycle. Extracting heat from asphalt could cool it, reducing the urban ’heat island’ effect. Finally, unlike roof-top solar arrays, which some find unattractive, the solar collectors in roads and parking lots would be invisible."

Mallick and his research team, which also includes Sankha Bhowmick of UMass, Dartmouth, studied the energy-generating potential of asphalt using computer models and by conducting small- and large-scale tests. The tests were conducted on slabs of asphalt embedded with thermocouples to measure heat penetration and copper pipes to gauge how well that heat could be transferred to flowing water. Hot water flowing from an asphalt energy system could be used "as is" for heating buildings or in industrial processes, or could be passed through a thermoelectric generator to produce electricity.

In the lab, small slabs were exposed to halogen lamps, simulating sunlight. Larger slabs were set up outdoors and exposed to more realistic environmental conditions, including direct sunlight and wind. The tests showed that asphalt absorbs a considerable amount of heat and that the highest temperatures are found a few centimeters below the surface. This is where a heat exchanger would be located to extract the maximum amount of energy. Experimenting with various asphalt compositions, they found that the addition of highly conductive aggregates, such as quartzite, can significantly increase heat absorption, as can the application of a special paint that reduces reflection.

Mallick said the team concluded that the key to successfully turning asphalt into an effective energy generator will be replacing the copper pipes used in the tests with a specially designed, highly efficient heat exchanger that soaks up the maximum amount of the heat absorbed by asphalt. "Our preliminary results provide a promising proof of the concept for what could be a very important future source of renewable, pollution-free energy for our nation," he said. "And it has been there all along, right under our feet."