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                                                         By Jared Rigsby

As the cost of oil continues to rise, along with unhealthy carbon levels, the challenge to create clean energy has become more and more of a priority lately. Though the issues of global warming and energy independence have been hotly debated for many years, the signs of these problems have become clearer and clearer anyway.  But who should be leading the charge to solve our international environmental crises? Some think it should be the world’s governments, while others think the United Nations should be in charge. Or, here’s another cool idea, how about a couple from northern Idaho? And this, my friends, is no laughing matter!

Scott and Julie Brusaw

For the past few years, Scott and Julie Brusaw took it upon themselves to offer a solution to the growing energy and climate crisis. With a little money raised by grassroots campaigning, and a grant from the Department of Transportation for Phase One funding, Scott invented a method of generating solar energy out of specially built, interconnected panels. The idea is to have all paved areas, such as roadways, parking lots, playgrounds and park roads covered with these durable, energy-generating panels. And they are calling it the SOLAR ROADWAYS project.

Having very little marketing and advertising experience, Scott turned to some artistic friends to create digital layouts of what the roads could look like. Then, the team dreamed up a wildly successful viral marketing video called Solar Freakin' Roadways, which demonstrated how these roads would work. It seemed like the small, grassroots company blew up overnight, as they received  funding from online donations on, and other crowd-funding sites. As of today, they have already doubled their goal of raising $1 million dollars for the project.

Solar Roadways Project

Though the technology for solar energy has been around for many decades, it hasn’t been cheap or efficient enough to make a major impact on the quickly growing energy needs around the world. But the technology did continue to improve over time. And now, over the last decade, the demand for this technology has finally made it feasible for entrepreneurs and innovators, such as Scott and his team, to experiment with new ideas that make it cheaper to produce as innovations continue to occur.

“The cost of solar panels has dropped 77% in the last seven years,” says Tonio Buonassisi, founder of MIT's Photovaltaic Research Laboratory. “It invites entrepreneurs to take a fresh look at integrating solar into functional products, including billboards, roof tiles, clothing, accessories, vehicles, and even roads.”

Glass PieceFor Scott and Julie, this created the perfect opportunity to invent a solar road prototype. Their idea was to encase a sensor, along with other useful heating elements and LED lights, within a hexagonal case of protective glass. No, this isn't the kind of glass you make dishes out of, but instead it’s a compact, durable glass- like bullet proof glass- that could withstand the daily grind of tires, and more.  The idea is that these hexagon panels could interlock with one another and be removable, which would make a repair as simple as changing out a single panel, and keep the entire system connected and working smoothly, quite easily.

Of course, traction is a major issue when we're talking about driving on glass. So Scott and Julie and their team developed something they called “macro texture,” in which each panel is made up of smaller hexagons, which creates a gripping texture. In addition, the design also creates a prism effect, which bends light toward a sensor no matter where it hits the panel!  More intensive testing is still waiting to be done, but so far this glass has held up nicely to a variety of tough durability challenges.

Road Way

Another innovation involves those ubiquitous lines that one sees on every road- so instead of painting lines on the roads, Scott has invented a series of LED lights that could make road marking simple. Not only would this replace the need to constantly repaint highway lines, but sensors within the panel could pick up possible obstacles in the roadway, and send warning signals up the road. This would make it possible to have a real time alarm system built into the roadway, which could be powered by some of the solar energy collected within the panels.

heated above freezingAnother advantage of this “smart roadway” is its ability to keep streets heated above freezing in the winter. The idea is that if the panel could be kept heated above the freezing point, then ice and snow would not accumulate. This would make for safer driving conditions during the winter, especially in northern areas where snow and ice are real problems. Living in northern Idaho, Scott and Julie have had plenty of snow to test their theories with

But wait! We’re still not finished! In addition to all we’ve already mentioned about this kind of “panel technology”, it could potentially also hold all kinds of wires and electronic elements safely. In one of his speeches, Scott suggested that fiber optic cables could run through the panels, delivering high speed internet everywhere across the country.  He also suggested “leaky cables” could be added, which would bring cell phone service to a much wider area of the nation. The key to this technology is it's modular design, which makes all kinds of upgrades and changes relatively easy to install. Scott and Julie’s ultimate goal is to create a smart infrastructure where improvements can continue to be added. Obsolesence, farewell!

Of course, like most things that attract a lot of attention, the Solar Roadways project has its naysayers. Some online podcasts and blogs suggest there are many problems with trying to implement a system like this.  One obvious issue that would have to be dealt with is keeping the roads clean, so the sensors can actually collect sunlight. Some people have also suggested that it would be difficult to see LED lights in the daytime, or that the only time parking lots would be empty enough to collect sunlight is at night. However, Scott and Julie insist that these flaws are over-exaggerated, and that they would need some time to prove the system could work.

Solar Road InlineSome of these issues may have some truth to them, but the support for Scott and Julie has remained strong. The fact is, whether their invention is successful or not, they are offering a solution to a major global problem.  Maybe this idea needs to be modified a few times, maybe not; but either way it has shown the world that, through crowd funding, ordinary people can take a stab at improving major issues.

In this day and age, more people are  interconnected than ever through the internet, smart phones and social media. It's possible that the very best news about this story, is that ordinary people can make a splash, and it grabbed the world’s attention. / Issue 167 - September 9495
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