UK: A project to study the use of heat pumps to prevent potholes in UK roads has received an £800,000 research fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Researchers at the University of Surrey say their new thermoactive road solution could help prevent potholes caused by winter freeze and thaw.

Dr. Benny Cao of Surrey, project leader, will work with National Highways to test the use of geothermal energy to keep pavements at a controlled temperature. They will install geothermal heat pumps to cool the roads in summer and heat them in winter.

The results could improve the maintenance and upgrading of major roads across the UK, even as climate change makes it harder to keep them usable.

“Right now, a typical motorway or road A has a lifespan of 20 years, but that lifespan is likely to shorten as extreme weather intensifies,” explained Dr. Cao, lecturer at the university’s School of Sustainability, Civil and Environmental Engineering. “However, by regulating the pavement temperature, they should last significantly longer, in addition to improving safety and reducing vehicle damage, think about reducing costly and inconvenient roadwork.”

Modern road technology creates around 700,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually and the cost of repairing UK pothole roads is expected to be £12bn over the next decade.

The researchers insist that thermoactive roads could be a low-cost, low-carbon alternative to reduce road damage.

Potholes on England’s main roads have caused 5,000 injuries since 2018. England spent £1.2bn last year on road maintenance and repair, a process with a high carbon footprint.

During his five-year research fellowship, Dr. Cao will create a laboratory model of a heat pump road section at the University of Surrey’s Advanced Geotechnical Laboratory to evaluate the thermal performance and stability of roads under controlled climate and traffic loads.

Full scale field trials will be carried out on UK roads and a full life cycle assessment will assess the environmental and financial costs of thermoactive roads.

He will also work with Cheltenham-based advanced materials development company Versarien to develop a new graphene-enhanced microcapsule that will infiltrate subsurface soil in road repairs to improve thermal conductivity and storage.