Here are 9 ways to build better roads in Michigan, from old tires to pig poop

SLIDESHOW: The Michigan Department of Transportation is building roads designed to last up to 50 years, like U.S. 131 in Grand Rapids. (Photo courtesy MDOT Photo Unit)

Victor Li of the University of Michigan holds material he calls “bendable concrete,” which gives under pressure, at a legislative hearing. (Bridge photo by Lindsay VanHulle)

Research in the Netherlands is relying on steel fibers mixed in asphalt to create heat that closes cracks as they appear. (Shutterstock photo)

Michigan State University’s project mixes rubber from recycled tires into asphalt and is being tested on roads in Ingham County. (Photo courtesy M. Emin Kutay)

Lawrence Technological University in Southfield developed carbon fiber strands to replace steel in bridges, as it is lighter and doesn’t rust. (Photo courtesy Nabil Grace)

MDOT is under orders to build roads that can last up to 50 years, which means better material, including a thicker road base. (Shutterstock photo)

Dow, a subsidiary of DowDuPont Inc., tested recycled plastic mixed into asphalt at its Texas facility. MDOT is considering whether to test it in Michigan. (Shutterstock photo)

Permeable pavement, which allows water to be absorbed, is intended to prevent flooding, but there is concern whether it would hold up in a freeze-thaw cycle. (Shutterstock photo)

Researchers have looked at using organic or natural materials to replace petroleum in asphalt, including pig manure.

Scientists in Turkey and elsewhere are studying how to slow ice formation on roads, which could be a benefit in wintry climates.

August 29, 2019: Michigan House Dem leader says Whitmer’s 45-cent gas tax is probably dead

Asphalt mixed with plastic bags. Concrete that bends. Carbon fiber in bridge beams.

Someday, these materials could be widely used to extend the lifespan of Michigan’s crumbling roads and bridges. Today, they’re emerging in labs and being tested in the real world to see how they hold up to the state’s frigid winters and heavy traffic. Bridge is offering you a quickie guide to promising innovations, including testing taking place at major Michigan research universities.

The desire to prolong the life of Michigan’s roads comes as Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration tries to drum up support for a $2.5 billion road-funding plan that is promised to get 90 percent of roads into good or fair condition by 2029. Republican legislative leaders have so far rejected Whitmer’s proposal — centered on a 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase phased in over a year — but have not yet unveiled an alternative plan for raising the money needed.

July 15: Republican ideas to fund Michigan road repairs taking shape over summer
Related: Pressure builds on Michigan Republicans to share their road funding plan

Separately from funding talks, the Michigan Department of Transportation has invested years of research on building longer-lasting roads and bridges and improving traffic safety.

Michigan spent $5.5 million of mostly federal funds on research in 2018. Up to 60 research projects are ongoing at any given time, said Carol Aldrich, MDOT’s engineer of research.

To be clear, none of these emerging ideas will end potholes. But they will hopefully lower total maintenance costs over the lifespan of roads and bridges. That’s the goal, anyway, with the state road agency making educated guesses on which materials or technology show enough promise to pursue. That means patience, as the outcome of some tests won’t be known for years, when tested pavement begins to wear down.

“The reality is, if there was a magic elixir, I think we would have found it and be using it nonstop by now,” said Matt Chynoweth, MDOT’s chief bridge engineer.

“We would love to build a road that would last forever with no maintenance, but that’s just not possible. We’re always looking at ways to make them last longer.”

Cost is another challenge, with new materials or processes often costing more than conventional construction.

“You have to be very careful running out there spending taxpayers’ dollars,” MDOT Director Paul Ajegba told Bridge. “If it fails, you lose credibility. And we are very careful of that.”

Here are some options for Michigan:

Victor Li of the University of Michigan holds material he calls “bendable concrete,” which gives under pressure, at a legislative hearing. (Bridge photo by Lindsay VanHulle)

‘Bendable’ concrete

The material Victor Li calls “bendable concrete” was originally intended to help tall buildings withstand earthquakes.

Traditional concrete, while strong and relatively inexpensive, cracks easily under pressure. Li, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, wanted to develop an alternative that gives under pressure to prevent cracking that eventually leads to potholes.

Called engineered cementitious composite, or ECC, it has been used in a few bridges around Ann Arbor, as a patch repair and as a replacement for a steel expansion joint that allows the bridge to expand and contract in different temperatures.

One appeal of his material, Li says, is that while it cracks, its cracks are small. Lab tests also have shown the bendable concrete can mend itself, he said.

“Water finds it very, very difficult to penetrate,” he said.

Chynoweth, of MDOT, said the department needed to cover the bendable concrete with an epoxy sealant to deal with the cracks.

Research in the Netherlands is relying on steel fibers mixed in asphalt to create heat that closes cracks as they appear. (Shutterstock photo)

Self-healing concrete

Researchers in the Netherlands are exploring the idea of asphalt that can heal itself, by applying heat.

Erik Schlangen of Delft University is leading experiments on several roads in which steel fibers are added to bitumen (a binding agent) in the asphalt, which allows the asphalt to conduct heat. They then run a large induction machine over the road, melting the bitumen, and closing the cracks.

This is promised to double the lifespan of the tested roads, though the experiment is still too early to yield definitive results. Another self-repairing road project is being tested in China.

Michigan State University’s project mixes rubber from recycled tires into asphalt and is being tested on roads in Ingham County. (Photo courtesy M. Emin Kutay)

Scrap tires in asphalt

Adding rubber to asphalt to increase the lifespan of pavement isn’t a new idea. But researchers at Michigan State University are developing new technologies to mix the rubber — using recycled scrap tires.

By this summer, the project — known as crumb rubber modified asphalt — will have been tested in nine local road segments in Ingham County over the past decade, said M. Emin Kutay, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MSU.

Scrap tires are shredded into a powder-like substance. Researchers use different methods of combining the rubber with asphalt.

Rubber has potential as a road additive because its flexibility could help slow cracking in asphalt, Kutay said. And keeping tires out of landfills has environmental benefits.

It hasn’t yet been determined whether Kutay’s rubber mixes will lead to long-term improvement in pavement life, in large part because the test material hasn’t been in place long enough to yield definitive results. The cost to build a test segment also is higher than using regular asphalt, but that cost has come down significantly from the earliest testing — from roughly twice as much as regular asphalt, to about 5 to 10 percent higher.

“That was one of the goals,” Kutay said. “In my opinion, that was a big success of this entire research program.”

Curtis Bleech, a pavement operations engineer at MDOT, told Bridge the state allows contractors to mix recycled tire rubber into asphalt so long as the road meets specific performance requirements.

Previous attempts at testing rubber in asphalt haven’t been successful, Bleech said. In past tries, rubber was ground into pellets too large to properly melt into the asphalt.

MDOT has used asphalt enhanced with polymers for years, Bleech said, which improves the life of pavement over traditional asphalt. MDOT hasn’t ruled out future use of rubber additives, he said.

“We just don’t have any conclusive evidence that it’s any better than what we currently use,” he told Bridge.

Lawrence Technological University in Southfield developed carbon fiber strands to replace steel in bridges, as it is lighter and doesn’t rust. (Photo courtesy Nabil Grace)

Carbon fiber in bridges

Michigan’s freeze-thaw winters can be harsh on infrastructure. Road salt used to melt ice, for instance, can seep through cracks in concrete bridge decks and splash up onto support beams. That can cause steel reinforcements inside the beams to rust.

In the 1990s, Nabil Grace, dean of the College of Engineering at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, teamed up with Japanese researchers to develop carbon fiber strands to replace steel as bridge components.

Carbon fiber is about 20 percent lighter than traditional steel, and doesn’t rust.

The technology was deployed on a bridge in Southfield in the early 2000s, and since has been used in about a dozen bridges in the state, said Chynoweth, of MDOT.

Michigan now is working with three other states to come up with the next generation of carbon fiber material using thicker strands to support even more force, Grace said.

MDOT’s interest in the carbon fiber bridge projects attracted Japanese firm Tokyo Rope Mfg. Co. Ltd. to open a U.S. subsidiary, Tokyo Rope USA, in Canton Township in 2016.

The company had received more business leading up to opening the Michigan facility, though shipping by sea from Japan takes a month or more, said Yoshiaki Yamamoto, director of Tokyo Rope International Inc. in Japan and chairman of Tokyo Rope USA. Air shipping is too costly, he said.

MDOT is the company’s largest American customer. “We thought it’s better to have a factory in the United States to meet with customers,” he said, adding its longstanding relationship with Lawrence Tech was another factor.

Like many emerging materials, the cost of the carbon fiber is more expensive up front, but Grace and Yamamoto said the goal is to reduce the total lifecycle maintenance cost of a bridge to up to 100 years.

“We are always looking for proven technology. The carbon fiber one is a good example of where MDOT is leading the charge,” Ajegba, MDOT’s director, said. “We’ve committed to continuing to expand this technology on all our bridges.”

MDOT is under orders to build roads that can last up to 50 years, which means better material, including a thicker road base. (Shutterstock photo)

Roads that last 50 years

A $1.2 billion road-funding package legislators adopted in 2015 included a requirement that MDOT develop roads that last for 50 years. Generally, pavements are built to last 20 years.

MDOT is completing projects this year to build two road segments designed for 30 years, and another two designed to last 50, near Grand Rapids and Flint. Each of the 30- and 50-year road test areas will include concrete and asphalt surfaces.

Building roads to last longer than 20 years requires higher-quality materials, including aggregates, asphalt and concrete, as well as improved road base and drainage systems, Bleech said. The road base on longer-lasting roads is between 1 to 2 feet thicker than standard roads, he said, which provides better support for the pavement.

MDOT estimates the cost to build 30-year roads would be 25 to 50 percent higher than a 20-year road, while the 50-year road could cost 75 percent to 100 percent more than the standard design — a potential longer-term cost savings, but one that carries a higher initial price tag, which would leave less funding available for other road projects.

One reason roads aren’t designed for longer than 20 years is because it’s hard to predict future traffic patterns and trends, Bleech said; what’s designed today could be obsolete within a few decades.

“We can’t just say, ‘Well, no, we're not going to try long-life pavements, because we know we're going to be driving (vehicles from The Jetsons cartoon) 20 years from now,’” Bleech said. “We have to still prepare.”

Dow, a subsidiary of DowDuPont Inc., tested recycled plastic mixed into asphalt at its Texas facility. MDOT is considering whether to test it in Michigan. (Shutterstock photo)

Recycled plastic

Dow, a subsidiary of newly formed DowDuPont Inc., tested recycled plastic mixed into asphalt on roads at its facility in Freeport, Texas. The company says the material weighs 1,686 pounds, or roughly the same as 120,000 plastic grocery bags.

The company said in a news release it is monitoring plastic-infused roads to identify improvements for different climates and environmental conditions. The company also highlighted the environmental benefits of reusing plastics for other purposes.

Bleech, of MDOT, said the state has met with Dow leaders, including earlier in June, to talk about how it might be incorporated into Michigan roads. One idea is to test it on a driving track used by Michigan State Police.

“(Dow is) not 100 percent positive, but based upon their work in Texas, they believe that they can meet our specifications,” Bleech said. “It’s a matter of them getting an asphalt cement producer to use their methodology, and then incorporate it into our hot (asphalt) mix.”

Dow officials did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Permeable pavement, which allows water to be absorbed, is intended to prevent flooding, but there is concern whether it would hold up in a freeze-thaw cycle. (Shutterstock photo)

Permeable pavement

A British company, Tarmac, markets a permeable concrete it says can soak up to 1,000 liters of water a minute per square meter of surface, making it attractive in places that experience flooding.

MDOT has not yet reviewed its use on roads, Bleech said. Permeable pavement, more generally, has been used in parking lots on some college campuses, including Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University. But there are concerns that such a surface would crack as it freezes and thaws in Michigan winters, especially if water doesn’t drain properly, he said. There’s also the matter of the upkeep required to keep dirt from clogging the drainage system.

Researchers have looked at using organic or natural materials to replace petroleum in asphalt, including pig manure. (Shutterstock photo)

Environmentally friendly options

Researchers in other states are looking at using more recycled materials in roads, including biological materials such as corn cellulose or microalgae to remove petroleum from asphalt, which would help the environment.

Bleech said replacing petroleum with natural substances would reduce the state’s carbon footprint — and emissions — by reducing the need to refine petroleum. He noted research into using pig manure to replace petroleum in asphalt.

MDOT also has considered using recycled shingles, which contain asphalt, in roads. The state tested it in a park-and-ride lot in Lowell a few years ago, Bleech said, and while he said it’s too soon to tell whether shingles will increase pavement life, it is more ecological to reuse byproducts that otherwise would wind up in landfills.

While an interesting idea, “we found that the available quantities of this stuff are not there for really big jobs.”

If road contractors have to source small amounts of material from multiple locations, rather than from one place, he added, “it kind of discourages them from using it.”

Scientists in Turkey and elsewhere are studying how to slow ice formation on roads, which could be a benefit in wintry climates. (Shutterstock photo)

Roads that can prevent ice

Some scientists, including in Turkey, have studied ways to slow ice formation on roads, which could be a benefit in wintry climates.

Those ideas have already made it to market: Cargill Inc., based in Minneapolis, sells products that mix with asphalt to keep ice from sticking to the roads and another applied to pavements that can store and release deicing materials.

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Comments

Arjay
Mon, 06/10/2019 - 8:48am

So what has happened to the carbon fiber bridge built in Southfield? I remember it being put on a relatively low traffic road off 8 Mile. Has it held up as expected? When I worked on composites in the 1970's, one problem we had was delamination where the layers of fiber would delaminate due to an external agent such as water or other liquid seeping between the fiber and the binder, and of course the fiber and the binder have different structural properties so that each time the piece is loaded and unloaded, the binder / fiber joint undergoes a shear stress.

abe bubush
Mon, 06/10/2019 - 9:12am

As long as they discard the contractor and research that supported the M6 construction which failed miserably at 25% of it's projected lifespan. Not to mention the poor engineering that resulted in teh complete replacement of a brand new bridge from 96-E to M6-W.

Matt
Mon, 06/10/2019 - 10:22am

Not to mention the west 4 miles of M6 that went bad after 2 or 3 years.

Rick
Mon, 06/10/2019 - 9:51am

'Republican legislative leaders have so far rejected Whitmer’s proposal — centered on a 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase phased in over a year — but have not yet unveiled an alternative plan for raising the money needed.'

'...but have not yet unveiled an alternative plan for raising the money needed.' The Michigan GOP - our 'do nothing' legislators. The solution to any real problem: do nothing. But if it's about guns, religion, polluting more... well, it's proposed and passed.

Matt
Mon, 06/10/2019 - 10:15am

If the Legislature says they're going to shift over the next few years the sales tax on fuel to go to the roads and Governor vetoes it does that make her a "Do Nothing Governor"?

Rick
Mon, 06/17/2019 - 12:11pm

So why didn't your wonderful GOP legislature do ANYTHING about the roads when they held both houses and the governorship? Please answer that question. They did pass a tax cut to businesses that would have paid for the roads. The famous tax cut (among so many) that was supposed to 'pay for itself'. It didn't and nothing went to our roads.

Stephen Michaels
Mon, 07/15/2019 - 12:50pm

Do you have a job? Because nobody had jobs thanks to our last Democrat governor. Now, the only people not working are the same lazy people who will never work. Revenue is enormous from record high employment and yet our new Democrat governor wants to tax us another 45 cents a gallon on our already overtaxed gasoline. More money for schools? Our education system has more funding than ever in history and is the worst it has ever been and we should be giving more money to it?
Tell your Democrats and Republicans to stop funneling our money into their own pockets. There is too much state revenue if anything . What exactly is these politicians job? If your ignorant enough to believe that the problem is one political party over the other, than you were obviously educated in public schools. People who haven't been brainwashed by politicians can clearly see that the real problem is corruption and waste and self preservation at every level of government. Keep following some political party and you'll keep ending up dissapointed. Until all citizens unite against all politicians and demand an end to their failure, they will all keep laughing all the way to the bank with our money.

Cathy Mueller
Mon, 06/10/2019 - 11:57am

I’d be interested in knowing how much the ridiculous sized trucks play into the MDOT and other road experimentation. I wouldn’t mind paying more for our roads if there was either adequate fee or higher licensing fees for the trucks. The trucks now on our roads, especially our local roads, are tremendously larger and heavier than the roads and streets are designed. Any discussion on the $0.45proposal seems to ignore the real abusers of our roads.

John
Sun, 06/16/2019 - 8:47am

Agree! MI allows truck weight about double other states. The per axle theory is bunk, reduce load limits to be the same as other states, then discuss new road designs

Stephen Michaels
Mon, 07/15/2019 - 12:53pm

Who do you think will pay for fees imposed on business? You! If the price goes up for them they charge us double what it went up! There is already more than enough money to fix our roads! Are you blind! We are being robbed and cheated!

Dennis
Mon, 06/10/2019 - 3:10pm

Why are there no articles arguing to align with Federal Highway load standards where Michigan allows double the loads? Or that we allow gravel trains where other states do not?

Andrew
Tue, 06/11/2019 - 9:34am

Living in the Straits, where tourism runs our economy, and our gas prices has been at $3/gallon for the past several months where people downstate and the Western UP enjoy upwards of 30-50 cents less, we can't afford a higher gas tax up here.

Speaking of the UP, where heavy B-train double trailer log haulers run, the roads like US-2 are great, even with the greater temperature differentials and high heavy truck traffic. There's got to be an underlying issue with the downstate roads. You can resurface all you want but if you're resurfacing on a poor base, the road will be back to what it was in a very short time, just like US-23 in my neck of the woods

Anonymous
Tue, 06/11/2019 - 2:30pm

Porous pavement has real benefits that should be considered, including less cost overall for road construction. With Global Warming, it is clear we will be experiencing larger rain events. Just one example - in October 2017 Kalamazoo area experienced a 7-9 inch rain which caused extensive flooding in the area. Porous pavements have the potential to save money and greatly reduce property losses when used in an appropriate manner. Ann Arbor has several streets and parking lots that have been paved with porous pavement.

Mall Road in Portland ME is a 6 lane road with porous pavement and has had great results including restoring a nearby watershed creek with much reduction in pollution runoff.

Salt use is causing surface and groundwater contamination according to published reports, the east coast is under EPA order to greatly reduce salt use on roadways, other regions are also on notice. Porous pavement can reduce salt use up to 80% saving the waterways and road funds. Porous pavements also last longer saving road funds and are up to 80% quieter, some install it just to make their community quieter. When rainwater management and pollution are included porous pavement is much less costly and lasts twice as long as conventional.

Vince Caruso
Wed, 06/12/2019 - 2:40pm

Additionally MI is not doing road noise barriers last I heard, so porous pavement may be the only relief options available. Noise is now considered a significant health issue for urban areas. Just some of the health problems range from stress, poor concentration, productivity losses in the workplace and loss of important night sleep.
Flood Hazard and pollution mitigation funds may be available to help with roads paved with porous pavement.

duane
Wed, 06/12/2019 - 12:25am

Lindsay, editor, and Bridge, thank you for the article, it offers hope that there maybe be changes in the roads for the future.
It is encouraging to hear that MDOT is looking for new things in our future, that the people at MDOT are weighing the future use against costs [though it would seem the use and loading continues to exceed the past experience. Thank you MDOT for allowing staff to talk to the public through Lindsay and Bridge.
I hope this is the first in a series of article about MDOT and the roads/bridges. It would very helpful to hear more from MDOT about how they plan roads/bridges from design to assess the costs of roads [maintenance vs usage, predictive maintenance, project management of construction, repair management, public disruption. The public could gain significant confidence in MDOT if we were better informed about how MDOT how goes about its work, how they assess performance and the associate parameters they use. I would like to hear more about the technology being imbedded in the roads for analyzing road/bridge failure, deterioration, even maintenance.
A series of these type of articles could be very informative for all.

Dr Kurt
Wed, 06/12/2019 - 11:52am

I agree! Glad to hear about all of the thought and science that is going into these decisions!

middle of the mit
Sat, 06/22/2019 - 2:02am

For all your talk about how you want to know about what the MDOT is doing, I am wondering if you have ever been to this site?

https://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9621---,00.html

My bet? Nope.

And load and useage limits?

Can't inhibit business can ya? Heck no!

They can load as much as they want in MI. We citizens will make up the difference. Snyder said so and MI repubs will fight to the death to make sure that happens. So you can complain all ya want about load and usage limits and Matt can complain about shipping barges. Yet they both fall within what conservatives call the BUSINESS sector. And BUSINESS is more important than individuals or consumers.

Prove me wrong. I dare ya!

Hey! At least you know where to go for the answers you want MDOT to answer!

NO excuses anymore!

Pete
Sun, 06/16/2019 - 9:23am

How do comparable states like Minnesota or Wisconsin both fund their roads, and what sorts of materials do they use?

Nancy Skinner
Sun, 06/16/2019 - 12:18pm

All good stuff stuff but Climate Change needs to be factored in for any new pavement. Arizona State University studied 800 roads and found 35% used inappropriate material because engineering standards are now based on a stationary climate from 1965 to 1995, noting "average global temperatures have risen significantly since then. Several new types of "bio-concrete" are being tested, using harmless bacteria or polymers, that can fix their own cracks when it rains, filling in the holes, within a week. It's be great if the damn roads fixed themselves!

Ole Anderson
Sun, 06/16/2019 - 5:12pm

And not one idea to fix the joint failure problem. Ask anybody and they will tell you fix that and you fix the single biggest issue with concrete pavement.

Darold Bancroft
Sat, 07/20/2019 - 11:01pm

Nobody seems to be addressing the fact that Michigan has double the gross vehicle weight of any of the 49 other states, and as for as I know, anywhere else. So what works and last for 50 years, probably won't in Michigan, because of the gross vehicle weight.