Did you know that there are almost 46,000 square miles of paved surfaces in the United States mainland alone? Thatâ€™s the same area as Ohio. Now imagine how much energy could be produced if all of these surfaces were replaced with solar panels.
According to Scott and Julie Brusaw, founders of Solar Roadways, the answer is around 14 trillion kilowatt hours. Thatâ€™s enough to power the whole of America for one year, three times over.
The challenge here is that solar panels are extremely delicate. Theyâ€™ve been known in the past to be damaged by heavy hail, so how could they support the weight of an 18 wheeler? Itâ€™s all to do with their ingenious idea for triple layer solar road panels.
The road surface layer is made from specially hardened and textured glass, built to withstand the heaviest loads. LED lights are built into the surface to facilitate smart road markings and signage, and heating elements protect the surface from snow and ice.
The glass is translucent enough for the delicate solar panels to be stored in a second layer below. A microprocessor board is fitted with sensors to detect temperature and load weight, feeding back information to the heating element and LEDs. See how in this video the panels intelligently detect when children are about to enter the road, illuminating STOP signs accordingly.
Finally, the base layer distributes the collected solar power along the network. This layer could also be used to house electric cables, phone and internet lines, removing the need for pylons. The company are also looking into potentially using mutual induction technology to power electric cars as they travel down the solar roads.
The end goal is to completely remove the United Statesâ€™ dependence on fossil fuels. In the meantime, however, the short-term goal is to develop the product for businesses and families.
In 2011, Solar Roadways received a $750,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration to build a prototype solar parking lot. The project was completed last month, complete with fully functional solar cells, LEDs, heating elements, and textured glass surface.
Initially, itâ€™s hoped that small businesses and individuals will be able to significantly lower their energy bills by replacing their parking lots and driveways with solar panels.
The company has apparently received lots of interest for this technology already, so the next step is to start manufacturing for commercial sale. As such, they plan to launch an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign on Earth Day, April 22, 2014, hoping to raise enough money to set up a factory and hire a team.
Nick Chowdrey is a business and technology writer and technical writer at Crunch.