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New conductive concrete can de-ice itself to keep roads and runways safe for travelers

conductive concrete warms up to melt ice electricity new can warm de itself  keeping roads and runways safer for travelers
Scott Schrage/UNL University Communications

Icy roads are a big problem in winter months all over the world. Sometimes spreading salt can help mitigate dangerous conditions, but the downside is that salt is harmful to both roads and tires. That’s why a new kind of concrete has been designed to withstand enough electricity to melt away snow and ice in a matter of minutes. With concrete like this, airports would suffer fewer delays and dangerous roads that ice over in winter would be clear to drive again, quicker than ever before.

The man who invented this new material, Chris Tuan, is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he led a research team to develop the new concrete. About 80 percent of Tuan’s new concrete is a standard mixture, while the other 20 percent is composed of elements like steel shavings and carbon particles. The steel shavings and carbon particles interact when an electric current is introduced to the hardened concrete mixture. Together, they conduct just the right amount of electricity to melt away ice and snow, without posing any kind of safety threat.

Related: Scientists have developed a new salt-filled asphalt that prevents ice from forming on roads

Even while conducting the charge, the concrete is still safe to touch. The research team has already been working to perfect the concrete solution for over a decade. In 2002, the Nebraska Department of Roads authorized a 150-foot test space for Tuan’s concrete. It spanned the length of Nebraska’s Roca Spur Bridge, and took 52 slabs of conductive concrete to complete. For over ten years, the bridge zapped away dangerous driving conditions every winter, without fail.

Tuan says that bridges are a perfect test condition for the conductive concrete: “Bridges always freeze up first, because they’re exposed to the elements on top and bottom.” With just a few slabs of Tuan’s concrete in strategically placed locations, cities and regional governments would be able to keep roads safer and keep costs low. De-icing the Roca Spur Bridge during a three-day storm racks up a cost of about $250, which is still considerably lower than the price of all the chemicals that would be necessary to power-salt the bridge.

The conductive concrete is currently in an important testing phase with the Federal Aviation Administration. De-icing the tarmac surrounding grounded planes would reduce airport delays considerably, since supply vehicles suffer from dangerous ground conditions more than airplanes. When the FAA completes their tests in March 2016, a favorable result would allow for concrete testing on a much larger scale. By the end of this year, conductive concrete could even be in place on the tarmac of some major US airports.