Asphalt vs. concrete: potholes ain't the half of it

Ka-chunk!: There goes the muffler...
Ka-chunk!: There goes the muffler...Courtesy Miguel Tremblay

We've all been there. You're driving along, bobbing your head along to the music, when suddenly you hit a pothole and it feels like your suspension is coming apart. It's especially bad here in Minnesota, because our extreme winters take their toll on worn asphalt. What's a gal to do?

One possible solution is a better way to fix potholes. In Duluth, MN, MNDOT workers are experimenting with new ways to hot patch asphalt with recycled materials and microwaves. In wintertime, crews usually have to patch potholes temporarily until summer comes along and they can use hot asphalt to make a more permanent patch. By using a special microwave, they can make hot patches even in bitter cold temperatures, and the recycled materials make for less waste and pollution. The new fix is also faster and cheaper than current methods.

My friend Wendie pointed out some billboards that went up recently in the metro area to promote concrete as a pothole-free alternative. (Wendie also passed along a handful of the articles in this post--thanks, Wendie!)

On the Think Concrete website, there's loads of info about how concrete lasts longer and saves money. But the question on my mind is, "Which is better for the environment?"
Asphalt: This heavyweight champ covers roads throughout the US, but can its popularity make up for inherent vice?
Asphalt: This heavyweight champ covers roads throughout the US, but can its popularity make up for inherent vice?Courtesy Seighean

A life cycle assessment comparing the environmental impacts of asphalt and steel-reinforced concrete was completed in 1998. It showed that while producing asphalt required more energy input, concrete required more ore and fertilizer inputs, and gave off more toxic emissions. On the other hand, asphalt was associated with higher levels of hazardous waste generation and management needs. The authors concluded that over the life of each material, the environmental impacts were roughly equal, but they also mentioned that asphalt was recycled more often than concrete, potentially turning the sustainability tide in its favor.

However, two separate studies have shown that concrete provides a better driving surface, decreasing the fuel needed to move a car down the road and thereby its emissions. (Both of the studies were completed in cooperation with cement associations, so throw some grains of salt in there). But there are other examples of concrete's environmental benefits.
Concrete: It's a tough contender, with lots of possibilities, but can it beat the title-holder for most ubiquitous road surface?
Concrete: It's a tough contender, with lots of possibilities, but can it beat the title-holder for most ubiquitous road surface?Courtesy Haljackey

And that's not all--there are some great innovations afoot with concrete. Some researchers are working to make cement with carbon absorbing properties, while others have found ways to make flexible concrete that heals itself, reducing the need for new materials and increasing safety.

Of course, there's also the pie-in-the-sky option: solar highways.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Leigha's picture
Leigha says:

Got a hubcab ripped clean off my car just the other day for that very reason. When I went back to pick it up, there were TWO hubcaps to choose from: mine, and someone else's that landed in the same spot. sigh.

Speaking of pie-in-the-sky options - I want flexible, solar highways WITH wind turbines: http://www.oobject.com/beautiful-wind-turbines/freeway-turbine-proposal/...

So pretty. And useful. Why not?

posted on Wed, 04/06/2011 - 2:09pm
Shana's picture
Shana says:

Ooh, I like that! Also, I want the highways to heat themselves in winter so that we never have icy roads again :)

posted on Wed, 04/06/2011 - 3:10pm
KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

What about porous asphalt or pervious concrete?

Not only are these materials more environmentally friendly than their non-permeable counterparts because they allow water to percolate through them... They may also decrease the quantity of pot holes as a result of their added allowance for shrinking and expanding due to temperature extremes.

posted on Wed, 04/06/2011 - 3:25pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i vote for teleportation. eliminate roads and cars.

posted on Wed, 04/06/2011 - 8:07pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I so agree with the teleportation idea. I was telling some people the other day that someone needs to figure out a way to make teleportaion possible. I wouldn't mind saving money on gasoline.

posted on Fri, 04/08/2011 - 8:01pm
daedalus2u's picture
daedalus2u says:

Concrete is also lighter in color and so it reflects more sunlight.

posted on Tue, 04/12/2011 - 9:00pm
Steven's picture
Steven says:

Of course concrete if lighter in color, require less man power to handle and major reason for adopting this material is its life span. But some times it gives a smooth surface to vehicles which gives a bad experience during braking with compared to asphalt made roads.



posted on Thu, 03/07/2013 - 7:10am

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