Road inventor driving toward the future

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Future roadways could experience a major aesthetic shift should Solar Roadways be implemented on a wide scale. (Photo courtesy DAN WALDEN)

SAGLE — It’s strange to think that a potential solution to the national energy and environmental crises was inspired by a simple toy.

But the image of the classic slot car racing toy — an electrified track that allows motorized toy cars to race in individual grooves — stuck in 6-year-old Scott Brusaw’s brain. It remained there throughout his studies in engineering. Then, with the help of his wife Julie, that image bloomed into a full-blown, grant-winning, trademark-ready “big idea.”

That idea is called Solar Roadways. The concept is simple: take solar collector cells, a microprocessor board, and power and data signal distributors, then hermetically seal them between sheets of material tough enough to drive over. But the ultimate execution — covering every asphalt and concrete surface in the nation with 12-by-12 foot Solar Roadway panels — is intimidating in scope.

“Obviously, this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight,” Brusaw said. “We’re going to start small: a single parking lot. Then we expand from there.”

That expansion’s endgame, Brusaw says, yields the kind of results that make environmentalists dance and oil executives squirm. According to his figures, the fully-converted highway and interstate system should produce enough clean energy to power the nation three times over. That kind of output effectively eliminates half of the nation’s demand for fossil fuel: power generation. 

It also stands to put a major dent in the other half — gas-powered vehicles — by making electric cars viable. The cars are currently limited by their need to recharge, minimizing their traveling range to between 100 and 180 miles. If even one national corporate chain decided to retrofit their parking lots with solar panels, those range issues would be largely solved.

“Imagine if McDonald’s decided to put this technology in their parking lots,” Brusaw said. “Then (electric car) drivers could stop by, grab something to eat and recharge their vehicles. Problem solved.”

Solar road benefits extend beyond energy production and environmental friendliness, Brusaw says. They can also make roads safer.

Yet another classic toy, the Lite-Brite, shares similarities with a safety element in Brusaw’s design. Each solar road panel is equipped with a series of white and yellow LEDs that serve multiple functions. They can be activated all at once to provide nighttime illumination. Should an accident or emergency occur, microprocessors can relay warning messages or lines directing traffic along detours. The lights work in tandem with sensors that can determine when animals or other obstructions are on the road and tell the LEDs to flash a “slow down” message to approaching drivers.

In the northern climates, the panels will also be equipped with a heating element. Not only will this improve safety by preventing snow and ice build up, but it will also maintain optimal exposure to sunlight.

 Brusaw’s design didn’t come together overnight. Both his personal and professional lives have played a role in propelling him toward the project.

“Many years ago, when the environment first started becoming a concern, I was aware of the issues but not necessarily taking any action,” Brusaw said. “But my wife Julie was very involved, and we moved in that direction together.”

Meanwhile, Brusaw’s career as an electrical engineer yielded a technical know-how, as well as the facilities and equipment to pursue the Solar Roadways project. His experience in the oil exploration business also taught him the American oil business and the danger of continued reliance on fossil fuels.

The Solar Roadway project, for all practical purposes, began in 2006, after Scott and Julie had fleshed out the concept.

“Here we were, sitting on what we thought was the greatest idea in the world, and we had no idea what to do with it,” Brusaw said. “So we just set up a website explaining the concept, and before long, people starting taking notice.”

That attention helped the Brusaws score a $100,000 Federal Highway Administration contract to develop a prototype. They were looking for a road design that could ultimately pay for itself, and with Solar Roadways ability to generate power, it certainly qualified.

Since then, Scott and Julie have been working as a team. Brusaw’s technical skill and his scientific and background allow him to both work hands-on with the project and promote it in scientific papers and presentations.

“But I’m your typical engineer, you know?” he said. “I’m no good with people. Now Julie, she’s a licensed counselor. She’s very good with people. So we really complement each other in a lot of ways.”

 Their combined efforts have generated an impressive response. The Your Environmental Road Trip promotional YouTube video, “Solar Roadways: The Prototype” has to date accumulated 621,681 views. Representatives of foreign countries have even contacted the Brusaws, expressing interest in the project.

“But I’d really like to keep this project American,” Brusaw said. “If we have this concept that could really change things, wouldn’t it be great to see it get started right here?”

The Brusaws are currently leading contenders in GE’s Ecomagination Challenge, a competition seeking environmental innovation. They stand to win $200 million to implement and test the first iteration of Solar Roadways. Brusaw says that only will the grant stimulate the local economy, but it stands to impact the nation’s future infrastructure.

“We need to be looking for solutions now,” he said. “Not after oil is no longer viable.”

To help the Brusaws win their grant, vote for Solar Roadways in all three categories. The deadline to vote is Sept. 30.To vote, go to http://www.solarroadways.com/vote.shtml .

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