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Researchers have found four new methods of harvesting solar energy from roadways

University of Rhode Island researchers are looking to obtain solar energy found in heat radiating off roadways in large cities and use it to illuminate signs, power streetlights, heat buildings and melt ice. 

K. Wayne Lee, leader of the study and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Rhode Island, along with his team, have studied different ways to harvest solar energy from cities, and concluded that there are four different approaches they can take to do so. 

"We have mile after mile of asphalt pavement around the country, and in the summer it absorbs a great deal of heat, warming the roads up to 140 degrees or more," said Lee. "If we can harvest that heat, we can use it for our daily use, save on fossil fuels, and reduce global warming."

The first approach is to divide highways by wrapping flexible photovoltaic cells around the top of Jersey barriers, which would provide electricity to illuminate road signs and power streetlights. Also, photovoltaic cells could be set in the roadway between the Jersey barrier and the rumble strip. 

"This is a project that could be implemented today because the technology already exists," said Lee. "Since the new generation of solar cells are so flexible, they can be installed so that regardless of the angle of the sun, it will be shining on the cells and generating electricity. A pilot program is progressing for the lamps outside Bliss Hall on campus."

The second approach is to insert water-filled pipes under the asphalt and have the sun warm the water. This method will eliminate the need to salt bridges when they're icy because the heated water will be piped underneath bridge decks melting the icy as it passes. The warm water could also be used to help with heating and hot water needs at nearby buildings much like geothermal heat pumps

A third idea would be to generate a small amount of electricity using a thermo-electric effect. This works by connecting two types of semiconductors to form a circuit that links hot and cold spots, which could then produce electricity. Thermo-electric materials could be inserted into roadways to defrost roadways. 

The final approach is to replace asphalt roadways completely with roadways made of durable electronic blocks that have LED lights and sensors as well as photovoltaic cells within them. The blocks would be capable of illuminating roadway lanes, provide warnings when maintenance is needed and generate electricity. While the use of these road blocks would be helpful in harvesting solar energy, it costs $100,000 just to build a driveway with them. 

"This kind of advanced technology will take time to be accepted by the transportation industries," said Lee. "But we've been using asphalt for our highways for more than 100 years, and pretty soon it will be time for a change."

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