Better road technology set to put potholes in the past

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Potholes could be eliminated by new road technology
Better bitumen may put an end to surface deterioration after rains.

Australia’s already extreme climate is apparently getting ever more extreme and that’s bad news for already under-the-weather road surfaces … and pothole-averse grey nomads.

The problem has left the Australian Road Research Board desperately seeking ways to design roads to be more resilient in the face of nasty weather, and to look at using more sustainable materials and technologies.

As most travellers who have been out into remote areas after a spell of heavy rain or extreme heat will know, not all surfaces are currently up to the job. According to the experts, the impact of high temperatures is greater on bituminous materials such as asphalt and sprayed seals, whereas the effect of high rainfall is greater on unbound granular pavement materials.

Rural roads have long been designed with consideration of the likely rainfall totals each year so, for example, pavements constructed in Queensland regions receiving more than 500mm of annual rainfall are typically designed to a more resilient standard.

The challenge has always been to try to use the right road surface in the right area but the task has been made more difficult as the climactic goalposts are constantly shifting. Each of Australia’s 10 hottest years on record has occurred since 1998. In addition, large parts of the country have been experiencing drought while others have had their highest summer rainfall in decades.

Analysing historical climate data and real-time weather forecasts has been able to help road engineers assess the most appropriate surface for a certain location to a point … but advancing technology is making the job a lot easier and more accurate. A range of low-cost wireless instrumentation technology is now available or under development that will allow for non-destructive real-time measurement of pavement condition and performance.

For example, the Australian Road Research Board says moisture sensors can detect when pavements are vulnerable to premature failure in saturated lower layers, and temperature sensors embedded in the pavement can provide continuous temperatures for modelling and design purposes.

In one recent trial, the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads increased the use of resilient pavement materials such as foamed bitumen, and apparently reaped immediate benefits.

The Australian Road Research Board said only minimal remedial works were required on newly constructed pavements after ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie hit in 2017. International researchers have also shown that some asphalts have the ability to self-heal under certain conditions, potentially prolonging the predicted design life of asphalt pavements in warm climates.

The Australian Road Research Board has similarly been exploring the concept of healing in asphalt at its state-of-the-art laboratory in Melbourne as it aims to optimise asphalt pavement design procedures.

So, the rural roads forecast for adventure-seeking grey nomads is rough in the short term, possibly rougher in the medium term, but – in the longer term – we might expect to see potholes, rutting and cracking slowly clearing.

At least that’s the forecast.

  • On which roads have you found the potholes particularly bad? Comment below.
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