Tag Archives: asphalt

Low-Temperature Cracking Test Produces Repeatable, Reliable Results

Researchers ran a sophisticated low-temperature asphalt cracking performance test at multiple labs to study the test, its variability and repeatability, and its additional promise in studying reflective cracking susceptibility of overlays. Results put MnDOT closer to implementing test specifications for low-temperature cracking test for pavement mixes.

What Was the Need?

In very cold temperatures, asphalt pavement shrinks and fractures as it pulls from its various restraint points. Low-temperature or thermal cracking is the most widespread distress found in asphalt pavements in cold climates like Minnesota’s.

Pavement designers select an asphalt binder performance grade (PG) based on expected seven-day average maximum and minimum temperatures that the asphalt pavement is expected to experience. A PG 58-28 binder, for example, is supposed to maintain good performance at maximum temperatures of 58 degrees Celsius (136 degrees Fahrenheit) and minimum temperatures of -28 degrees Celsius (-18 degrees Fahrenheit).

PG binder ratings and tests do not characterize asphalt mixtures precisely because PG does not account for aggregate types and gradations, recycled material in the mix, and plant and field aging of asphalt mixtures. Asphalt mixtures must be tested at relevant temperatures.

“The disc-shaped compact tension fracture energy provides a good basis as a reflective cracking performance predictor, as well as for thermal cracking,” said Eshan Dave, associate professor, University of New Hampshire Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

For MnDOT to fully implement performance-based specifications for asphalt mixtures, it must better understand mechanistic tests of the susceptibility of asphalt mixtures to certain kinds of stresses. The disc-shaped compact tension (DCT) test has emerged from a decade of study as the best tool for measuring fracture susceptibility of asphalt mixtures at low temperatures and other conditions. Recommendations from a 2015 pilot DCT low-temperature fracture study included repeatability testing trials for DCT testing of low-temperature fracture energy.

What Was Our Goal?

The goal of this research was to evaluate the DCT test to support its use in performance-based specifications for examining fracture properties within asphalt mixtures at cold temperatures. Researchers would develop a fracture energy database for Minnesota asphalt mixtures, refine the test as necessary, characterize the variability and reproducibility of test results by testing mixtures at multiple labs, recommend test specifications or parameters, and evaluate the potential for DCT testing of the susceptibility of asphalt overlay mixtures to reflective cracking.   

What Did We Do?

Researchers identified pavement and overlay projects with asphalt mixtures that could be sampled for DCT testing. Then they compiled MnDOT data on asphalt pavement construction projects, mixture designs and DCT test results, developing a single database for this information to be updated continuously and managed by MnDOT’s Office of Materials and Road Research.   

Using this database, researchers selected 16 asphalt projects representative of pavement and overlay mixtures, and gathered samples of mixtures from each of these projects for distribution to four testing laboratories. The team analyzed test results for all samples at all labs to assess repeatability.

A disc-shaped asphalt pavement mixture sample in the test setup. The disc was instrumented with a temperature sensor prior to testing.
For the DCT test, a disc-shaped asphalt sample was instrumented with a temperature sensor and prepared for pulling tension to simulate its cracking susceptibility while contracting at low temperatures.

The research team then collected field performance data on 15 selected asphalt overlay projects also in the database and ran over 100 finite element models of the mixtures to examine how their fracture energy test results may predict reflective cracking performance in the field.

What Did We Learn?

The DCT testing database included over 6,000 test results as of the end of 2018 and can be updated with new test results as they become available to optimize the use of DCT testing in performance-based specifications.

Typically, DCT testing requires holding a specimen at low temperature during testing for up to 12 hours; investigators refined the method to reduce the holding time to approximately 2.5 hours, in part by instrumenting specimens for interior temperature monitoring. Researchers also determined that reheating plant-produced loose asphalt mixtures to compact samples for DCT testing produced lower fracture energy results.

Researchers identified a fracture energy limit of 90 joules per square meter over which low-temperature fracture energy test results reproduce poorly and found that testing of 12 replicated specimens lowers variability and minimum and maximum fracture energy range values. Increasing binder content and the high- and low-temperature range of PG binders improves fracture resistance in mixtures, as does lowering recycled asphalt content.

“We need to continue to evaluate DCT for mix design. The researchers made good recommendations for overlay projects to combine thickness and fracture energy,” said Shongtao Dai, research operations engineer, MnDOT Office of Materials and Road Research.

Overlay fracture resistance, determined by combining overlay thickness and mixture fracture energy, correlates with improved reflective cracking performance in asphalt overlays. A fracture-resistance value of 50 joules per square meter found in this study may be used to minimize reflective cracking potential in overlays.

What’s Next?

MnDOT is closer to implementing DCT test specifications for asphalt pavement. Turnaround time in DCT testing limits its use in quality assurance and control of asphalt mixtures during production, and MnDOT is researching alternative tests for this purpose. The DCT database may be valuable in calculating and evaluating other performance parameters for their ability in predicting field cracking performance.

Use of the DCT for overlay performance testing and specifications proved promising. Validation and field implementation, as well as further analysis of fracture energy, mixture composition and overlay thickness relationships to reflective cracking performance all warrant more research. 

This post pertains to Report 2019-24, “Disc Shaped Compact Tension (DCT) Specifications Development for Asphalt Pavement,” published June 2019. For more information, visit the MnDOT project page.

Testing Methods for Crack Resistance in Asphalt Materials

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is working with other state agencies in a pooled fund study to improve methods for testing crack resistance of asphalt mixtures. To expand options further, MnDOT asked researchers to evaluate alternative tests with standard lab equipment. The new tests produced repeatable results. Methods include the semicircular bend (SCB) test in a nontypical configuration, a dynamic modulus test of smaller asphalt mixture samples, a bending beam rheometer (BBR) test of mixtures, and a BBR of asphalt material for binder selection.

What Was the Need?

A number of factors lead to cracking and other damage in asphalt. Cold temperatures cause pavements to contract, triggering internal tensions that lead to low-temperature cracking. Aging asphalt binder grows brittle and under loading pressure generates bottom-up, or fatigue, cracking. A variety of causes may contribute to top-down cracking, such as mixture properties, construction practices, tire design and loading.

A road crew works at night to place a layer of asphalt pavement.

MnDOT, in partnership with the National Center for Asphalt Technology, and four other state transportation agencies are part of a pooled fund study to develop mixture performance testing focused on cracking. This group, termed the Cracking Group, installed eight different pavement cells at MnROAD in the summer of 2016 to examine pavement performance and testing approaches for low-temperature, top-down and fatigue cracking.

The group’s approach does not embrace every potential test, including some examinations other agencies and research organizations have found potentially valuable in predicting cracking behavior of asphalt pavement materials.

What Was Our Goal?

MnDOT sought to investigate the viability of testing methods not included in Cracking Group studies. These tests would be conducted on asphalt mixtures sampled during construction of the test sections at MnROAD to help in material selection, quality control and forensic investigation of paving materials.

“This was a knowledge-building, data-gathering study that will help fill out our materials library database to correlate test results of asphalt materials to field performance.”
—David Van Deusen, Research Operations Engineer, MnDOT Office of Materials and Road Research

What Did We Do?

Preliminary testing focused on the eight MnROAD cells, pulling cores from the existing pavement before reconstructing new sections. Researchers tested these cores to refine methods for proposed tests. The team then gathered details on the binders and mixtures used in the 2016 reconstruction to use in its planned tests.

Researchers ran three tests on the eight asphalt mixtures and one test on the five asphalt binders used in the pavement mixtures at MnROAD. The asphalt mixture tests were:

  • Bending beam rheometer (BBR) test of mixtures to obtain creep stiffness and strength of asphalt mixtures. This approach uses small beam specimens useful in forensic investigations.
  • Low-temperature semicircular bend (SCB) test to measure fracture energy in mixtures. Currently there is no national standard test for fracture energy, but based on previous pooled fund work, MnDOT implemented the disk-shaped compact tension (DCT) test. The SCB results will be used to tie in the previous work and compare to the DCT.
  • Dynamic modulus test of mixture resilience that uses smaller cylindrical specimens, a benefit in forensic studies.

To obtain asphalt binder strength, researchers used a variation of the BBR test for mixtures.

A sample disk of asphalt stands vertically in testing equipment to be compressed from one edge to the other.
The SCB test applies pressure diametrically on an asphalt pavement puck along the axis of a 6-inch pavement cylinder to measure susceptibility to cracking at low temperatures.

What Did We Learn?

The four tests proved to be viable options for materials selection testing, quality control and forensic examination of samples from existing asphalt pavements. The SCB and dynamic modulus can be run with research equipment. These tests yielded repeatable results and identified differences in the eight mixtures that are expected to impact performance. In particular, the BBR test of mixture has potential for being a practical field screening test.

The BBR test of mixtures measures strength and creep of ½-inch-thick asphalt mixture specimens compared to an indirect tensile test of strength on 2-inch asphalt pucks, and the test produces similar results. The dynamic modulus test uses the same configuration as the indirect tensile test, but instead of applying vertical compression to a 6-inch asphalt core, it applies pressure on a 1.5-inch puck diametrically, yielding similar results on an asphalt mixture’s resistance to loading.

The SCB test, an alternative to the DCT test, provides similar results in measuring the fracture energy of asphalt pavement mixtures. Either of these two newer tests is viable for MnDOT use. The binder BBR strength test represents a viable alternative to the direct tension test that, due to complex sample preparation and expensive equipment, is not frequently used.

“These test methods produce repeatable, consistent results, are simple to perform and differentiate between mixtures. They could provide critical information on the evolution of pavement performance since they can be used for forensic analyses.”
—Mihai Marasteanu, Professor, University of Minnesota Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering

All tests found sample performance highly dependent on temperature. Fracture resistance does not correlate directly with other tested values; two mixtures that share similar creep stiffness, for example, may not have similar fracture resistance. Results indicate the eight mixtures tested may perform similarly, although one with high recycled asphalt content and another with a highly modified asphalt binder may be outliers. Based on the laboratory test results, mixtures with performance-graded binders do not differ markedly when one is mixed with recycled asphalt materials. As is the case with all pavement field studies, time is required for the mixes to begin to distinguish themselves from one another in terms of field performance.

What’s Next?

MnDOT will share test results from this study with the Cracking Group team and include them in the overall examination of the MnROAD test cells. Researchers recommend comparing results to observed distresses and core tests periodically from these pavement cells to correlate field conditions and tested mixture performance over time. MnDOT will consider some of these testing methods and findings in its continuing effort to develop a performance-based balanced mix design approach for asphalt pavement.

This post pertains to Report 2019-03, “Investigation of Cracking Resistance of Asphalt Mixtures and Binders,” published January 2019. For more information, visit MnDOT’s Office of Research & Innovation project page.

Study Suggests 70 Percent RAP for Minnesota Gravel Road Surfaces

Researchers examined mixtures of recycled asphalt pavement (RAP) and aggregate for new gravel road surface layers in the lab and in the field. Although test results did not align perfectly, and field results were somewhat uneven, findings suggest that mixtures with 70 percent RAP content can reduce dust generation. After a year of service these roadways can match all-aggregate gravel road performance in terms of strength, but with a smoother ride.

What Was the Need?

Gravel roads offer a cost-effective option for road departments that wish to avoid the expense of asphalt and concrete roads in rural or low traffic areas. However, about an inch of gravel is lost from these roadways each year. Aggregate resources are diminishing, and gravel and crushed rock aggregate is growing increasingly expensive.

Gravel also generates dust that can reduce visibility, affect road performance and result in complaints from nearby homeowners. 

Recycled asphalt pavement (RAP) can be an effective component of new asphalt pavement mixtures. Many aggregate producers stockpile RAP that has been broken into the size of aggregate. But not all RAP works well mixed in asphalt, and some aggregate yards are too far from pavement projects to economically use RAP in pavement. 

Road agencies frequently use RAP in gravel roads. The asphalt content in RAP can bind with dust from crushed rock or gravel, helping manage fugitive dust. A recent study in Wyoming found that using RAP in new gravel surface applications at less than 50 percent of the aggregate resulted in good road performance and kept dust to a minimum. 

What Was Our Goal?

In light of the findings from the Wyoming study, researchers sought to determine the optimal level of RAP in an aggregate mixture for Minnesota gravel road surfaces. These new applications would offer good driving stability while also controlling fugitive dust. 

What Did We Do?

Research began with a review of the literature on RAP as an aggregate component of surface, base and subbase layers, as well as a survey of Minnesota counties on their experience with these mixtures. 

In the lab, the research team tested three RAP materials and virgin aggregate from two Minnesota locations in various RAP content levels for strength and compression. Investigators then compared the economic feasibility of 100 percent virgin aggregate use to 50 percent virgin and 50 percent RAP aggregate mixtures on a 1-mile aggregate road, including annual grading and eventual regraveling in the estimations.  

Research in the field focused primarily on six 1,000-foot gravel road test sections: four sections in Goodhue County using 15, 30, 45 and 60 percent RAP content, and two sections in Carlton County using 30 and 50 percent RAP. The studies entailed all-virgin aggregate control sections, and installations were made over roads with various subgrade soils that presented a variety of properties. Sites were tested for elasticity, bearing strength and fugitive dust generation. 

A secondary field study focused on RAP contents of 50, 70 and 80 percent in 3-inch surface courses for three test sections and one control section in Goodhue County. Sites were tested for elasticity, strength, dust generation, ride quality and surface aggregate looseness over time, and some lab tests were conducted.

“The 70 percent RAP mixture seemed to be about the best combination. We put RAP down in fall 2017, and by the next summer, it was working much like a regular gravel road.” —Charles Jahren, Professor, Iowa State University Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering 

Mounds of RAP at a gravel pit in Carlton County offer road agencies an alternative to
natural gravel and crushed aggregate for gravel roads. But RAP has to be used in the
right proportion with gravel.
Mounds of RAP at a gravel pit in Carlton County offer road agencies an alternative to natural gravel and crushed aggregate for gravel roads. But RAP has to be used in the right proportion with gravel.

What Did We Learn?

Previous research indicated that RAP can help reduce fugitive dust, offers value as surface courses, and can reduce moisture susceptibility of gravel roads in cold or wet locations. 

Lab mixtures with 30 percent RAP consistently produced high compressive strength values, and higher RAP levels generally correlated inversely with bearing strength. Improvements in dust reduction were limited until RAP levels exceeded 50 percent. 

Economic analysis determined that a 50/50 percent mix of RAP and aggregate would cost 1.5 percent more than an all-virgin aggregate surface course in terms of construction and maintenance, but potential reductions in dust generation, surface aggregate loss and regraveling after three years of service may produce savings from RAP use. 

Results from field testing defied clear recommendations on optimal RAP content. Generally, higher RAP content offered greater elasticity and lower levels of loose aggregate initially, but these benefits fell to equal or below non-RAP levels after a year. Higher RAP correlated with reduced dust generation, but again fell over the first year of service. In secondary testing, initial dust generation was lower with the 50 percent mixture than the others, but after a year was lowest with the 70 percent mixture. 

Ultimately, researchers found that after a year, during which fugitive dust production was reduced, the performance of a 70 percent RAP content aggregate surface course was most like a virgin aggregate surface course and offered a smoother driving surface. 

What’s Next?

“These findings provide another tool in the toolbox. They will be most useful to engineers who haven’t used RAP in gravel roads and to county engineers who have a RAP resource.” —Joel Ulring, Pavement Engineer, MnDOT State Aid for Local Transportation

While this research did not develop a definitive recommendation for an optimal RAP content in surface courses for aggregate roads, it did produce useful data on performance. The study did encourage a general sense that 70 percent RAP content for surface courses of approximately 2 inches may be effective and warrants systematic study for a three-year period. 

A researcher scrapes a gravel road surface with a modified garden hoe to measure loose aggregate levels.
A researcher scrapes a gravel road surface with a modified garden hoe to measure loose aggregate levels.

This post pertains to Report 2019-11, “Optimal RAP Content for Minnesota Gravel Roads,” published March 2019. For more information, visit MnDOT’s Office of Research & Innovation project page.

Rout-and-Seal Offers Slight Cost–Benefit Over Clean-and-Seal Repairs

In a recently completed study, Minnesota researchers compare the performance and cost-benefit of the clean-and-seal versus rout-and-seal techniques for repairing asphalt pavement cracks.

Survey results, construction data and field evaluation of new repairs and their performance over two years gave rout-and-seal repairs a slight cost–benefit edge over clean-and-seal repairs. At an average performance index level, rout-and-seal offered about four years of service before failure; clean-and-seal offered about three years. The study also recommends rout-and-seal for use over clay and silt subgrades in most conditions. Decision trees were developed to help planners and repair crews select an appropriate repair method.

Background

Preserving asphalt pavements so they maintain performance for decades requires a variety of repairs, including sealing cracks. Cracks allow water to seep into pavement structures, leading to damage from freeze-thaw expansion, stripping of the asphalt’s bond from the underlying structure, potholes and crack expansion.  

For most crack repairs, road crews clean the crack and apply an asphaltic filler or sealant. MnDOT uses two approaches to repair cracks and create a smooth ride for passing vehicles: clean-and-seal and rout-and-seal. Both treatments force traffic closures. 

Clean-and-seal asphalt crack repair begins by using compressed air to clean the crack before sealing it.

With clean-and-seal, compressed air is used to remove debris from the crack before a sealant is applied. With rout-and-seal, a saw or router is used to grind a shallow trench or reservoir over the crack. The routed seam is then filled with an asphaltic sealant. 

After routing a shallow channel over the pavement crack, repair workers fill the crack with asphaltic sealant.

Rout-and-seal requires more time and, in many cases, slightly more sealant, making it more expensive than clean-and-seal. Some agencies favor clean-and-seal because it is less expensive, reduces the time crews are on the road and frees more time to maintain other cracks. 

What Was Our Goal?

Researchers sought to determine which of the two repair methods offers the better value over time. If rout-and-seal delivers a longer-lasting repair, it may be more cost-effective than clean-and-seal in terms of life-cycle cost. The research team also needed to develop guidelines for selecting the most suitable repair method for the damaged pavement. 

What Did We Do?

Researchers conducted a literature search to see how agencies around the country approach asphalt crack repair. The research team then surveyed Minnesota road agencies to see which repair method agencies prefer and how long repairs typically last. 

To review performance of crack sealing, researchers evaluated the MnDOT construction logs of old repair sites and visited 11 new repair sites. These locations were revisited two, six, eight, 12 and 18 months following the repair. To calculate a performance index rating, researchers recorded data about site conditions that included sealant age, traffic level, subgrade soil type and crack sealing performance. Two sites were removed from the analysis when local crews applied chip seals to the pavements.

Investigators calculated performance index levels for each repair method at each site. They gathered cost data where available from bid-letting paperwork and determined life-cycle costs. Finally, the research team created decision trees that planners and maintenance crews can use to help select crack repair methods. 

What Did We Learn?

“This study provided very useful information. The rout-and-seal has a better cost–benefit over the life of the pavement than the clean-and-seal, however, they are relatively close. Agencies will need to decide if they have the manpower or resources to perform one over the other.”

—Dan Knapek, Assistant County Engineer, Sherburne County Public Works

Limited research was identified that compared clean-and-seal and rout-and-seal treatments. Most studies of asphalt crack sealing compared unsealed and sealed pavement performance and have established that sealing does extend pavement life. None compared cost–benefits of the two methods.

Of 47 survey respondents, 68 percent use rout-and-seal and 32 percent use clean-and-seal. Responses identified no clear trends in life expectancies for the two methods, with predictions for service until failure falling predominantly in two to 10 years for clean-and-seal and two to 15 years for rout-and-seal. The most common criteria for choosing a method were crack or pavement condition (46 percent of respondents) and predetermined maintenance schedules (24 percent). 

Analysis of MnDOT construction data found no statistically significant difference in life expectancies for the two methods, with service lives of 6.4 years for rout-and-seal and 6 years for clean-and-seal. A similarly slight advantage for service lives of both treatments was identified for low-volume roads over higher-volume roads. 

After one year of service, the new seal sites delivered strong performance index figures. Short-term performance on rural roads was identical for the two methods. After the severe 2018-2019 winter, however, performance dropped significantly; spalling damage was frequently observed at rout-and-seal sites. 

Analysis of old and new seal projects showed that at an average performance index level, rout-and-seal repairs last about four years and clean-and-seal about three. Life-cycle cost analysis found rout-and-seal slightly more effective. Because the difference is slight, factors such as treatment cost, life expectancy, ease of operation, traffic level and crew manager opinion may guide selection of sealing strategies. 

What’s Next?

Researchers developed two decision trees for selecting a repair method: one for pavement management and another for maintenance crews. Rout-and-seal is recommended for pavements over clay and silt subgrades. 

Research that extends monitoring of the new crack seal sites for up to five years would provide useful data on performance and comparison of the effectiveness of the two methods.

“To help select an appropriate crack repair method, we developed two decision trees: a detailed one and a simple one with only three variables—crack size, traffic level and the number of times a crack has been sealed.” 

—Manik Barman, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota Duluth Department of Civil Engineering

This Technical Summary pertains to Report 2019-26, “Cost/Benefit Analysis of the Effectiveness of Crack Sealing Techniques,” published June 2019. Visit the MnDOT research project page for more information.

Nanotechnology Reduces Cold-Weather Cracking in Asphalt Pavements

Adding graphite nanoplatelets (GNP) to asphalt binders and applying the methodology developed in a new MnDOT study could provide a cost-effective approach to reducing cold-weather cracking and increasing the durability of Minnesota pavements.

“This project gives MnDOT a low-cost way to incorporate the latest nanotechnologies into our asphalt mixtures, reducing cold-weather cracking and increasing the durability of Minnesota pavements,” said Shongtao Dai, Research Operations Engineer, MnDOT Office of Materials and Road Research.

What Was Our Goal?

The objective of this project was to develop a cost-effective method to determine the optimum mix design of GNP-reinforced asphalt binders and mixtures. This method would predict the fracture behavior of these materials using a combination of simple laboratory testing and computer modeling.

What Did We Do?

Researchers developed a method for determining the quantity of GNP to add to an asphalt binder to achieve optimal asphalt mixture performance. The method used a computer model to predict the low-temperature fracture behavior of mixtures based on bending beam rheometer (BBR) tests on fine aggregate mixtures. This test applies a load to the center of a thin, rectangular specimen that has been cooled to a low temperature while its edges rest on two elevated supports, and then measures how the specimen bends over time. The results of this test determine the stiffness of materials and their ability to relax the stresses of contraction.

The BBR test is simpler, less expensive and less labor-intensive than the more accurate semicircular bend (SCB) test, which measures fracture resistance—the way cracks in a material form—by loading a semicircular sample from its apex. However, the SCB test can determine the properties of all the particles within a mixture; the BBR test can only evaluate the mechanical properties of coarse aggregates. To obtain the accuracy of the SCB test without the labor and expense, the computer model developed by researchers in this study uses BBR results as inputs to simulate SCB tests and infer the properties of fine aggregates.

2018-02-p1-image
Although simpler and less expensive than a SCB test, a BBR test only evaluates the properties of a mixture’s coarse aggregates.

What Did We Learn?

Researchers validated their computer model by comparing its results with those of  actual SCB tests. They found that the model was able to predict the results of SCB tests for both conventional and GNP-modified mixtures. By performing only a BBR test on the fine aggregates mixture and inputting the results into the computer model, researchers obtained a reasonable prediction of the fracture response of the final asphalt mixtures.

In turn, the model showed that using GNP in asphalt binders can significantly improve the strength and fracture resistance of a mixture compared to mixtures with unmodified asphalt binders. The model can be used as a design tool to determine what percentage of GNP is needed to achieve the necessary tensile strength for a target value of fracture energy.

What’s Next?

Using GNP in asphalt binders, in combination with the methodology developed in this project, could potentially provide MnDOT with a cost-effective approach to improving the cold-weather performance of Minnesota pavements, preventing cracking and increasing pavement durability. MnDOT will continue to evaluate the use of GNP in its asphalt mixes.

This post pertains to Report 2018-02, “A Mechanistic Design Approach for Graphite Nanoplatelet (GNP) Reinforced Asphalt Mixtures for Low-Temperature Applications.” Further GNP research is underway. Find related projects at MnDOT.gov/research.

New Procedures Offer Guidance for Using Bonded Whitetopping on Asphalt Pavements

Researchers developed procedures for selecting asphalt pavements for thin whitetopping based on site examination and lab testing. Test results do not offer definitive indications of how overlaid asphalts will perform, but procedures offer recommendations on pre-overlay pavement treatment, testing protocols and design considerations for bonded concrete overlay of asphalt.

“This research established a procedure for testing pavement cores. However, more performance data on whitetopping is needed to correlate pavement performance and asphalt properties,” said Tim Andersen, Pavement Design Engineer, MnDOT Office of Materials and Road Research.

“These procedures address collecting field data and testing pavement core samples in the lab. They also provide useful guidance for pavement repair and design considerations for overlays,” said Dale Harrington, Principal Engineer, Snyder and Associates, Inc.

A badly rutted pavement.
Rutted and otherwise damaged asphalt pavement is a candidate for a bonded concrete overlay that can mitigate damage under the right site conditions.

What Was the Need?

Many counties throughout Minnesota have used bonded concrete overlays to rehabilitate asphalt pavement. Though not widely used by MnDOT, a bonded concrete overlay, or whitetopping, normally involves milling a few inches of asphalt off the damaged surface and placing 4 to 6 inches of concrete over the asphalt pavement. A well-bonded overlay can add 20 years to a pavement’s service life.

Bonded whitetopping performance has not been care-fully tracked, and correlation of its performance with the underlying pavement condition is not well understood. Be-fore MnDOT can expand its use of bonded whitetopping, materials engineers wanted to better understand what asphalt pavement conditions are best suited to this type of overlay, how asphalt behavior influences the concrete top layer and what underlying pavement characteristics affect the expected lifetime and performance of bonded white-topping.

What Was Our Goal?

This project sought to develop an integrated selection procedure for analyzing existing, distressed asphalt pavement to identify good candidates for bonded whitetopping and establish design considerations for a site-specific, effective concrete overlay. By testing pavement core samples in the lab, investigators wanted to identify asphalt pavement properties that correlate with distresses in concrete overlays that are 6 inches or less. They also sought specific recommendations for managing trans-verse cracking in asphalt to avoid reflective cracking into concrete overlays.

What Did We Do?

Researchers began with a literature review of approaches to selecting pavements for bonded whitetopping. The results of this review were used to develop testing procedures to identify the volumetric properties of existing asphalt pavements. Researchers applied these procedures to 22 pavement cores from six concrete overlay sites in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri. Selected projects entailed 4-inch to 6-inch overlays in fair to good condition that were built from 1994 through 2009. Data about mix design, asphalt condition, pavement thickness, overlay thickness, site conditions and other details were available for each site.

The research team compared roadway data with falling weight deflectometer measurements from pavement cores to evaluate field performance and design recommendations suggested by the selection procedure. To refine the procedures, investigators evaluated volumetric asphalt characteristics for their potential influence on premature overlay cracking due to stripping, slab migration and reflective cracking. Finally, the team developed a detailed selection process that includes steps to identify and test asphalt pavements with potential for bonded whitetopping, repair asphalt before overlays and establish design considerations for overlays based on the test results from the selected asphalt pavement.

What Did We Learn?

The selection procedure, which is based on recommended practices from the National Concrete Pavement Technology Center, has six steps:

  • Perform a desk review of available site data, including design, repair and environmental conditions.
  • Obtain pavement core samples.
  • Conduct site visits to examine existing conditions.
  • Obtain additional core samples for testing, when necessary.
  • Prepare preliminary cost and materials estimates, if practical.
  • Provide design recommendations.

Investigators tested pavement cores for air voids, density, stiffness, fatigue, aging, strip-ping potential and other distress parameters. Results were inconclusive in terms of identifying asphalt properties that lead to specific bonded concrete overlay failures or to long-term performance of bonded whitetopping projects. The pavement cores showed wide variation in material properties, but few of these distresses. Researchers framed the recommendations for testing volumetric properties in the format of MnDOT’s Pavement Design Manual, giving the agency an easily adoptable core testing protocol.

The selection procedures include information about the impact of transverse cracking, rutting, longitudinal cracking and other distresses on concrete overlays, and provide recommendations for treating various distresses before whitetopping. Design considerations for whitetopping are also provided based on site conditions and the results of core, ground penetrating radar and falling weight deflectometer testing.

What’s Next?

Tested overlay sections should be evaluated over time to determine if life expectancy is met or if asphalt stripping, slab migration or reflective cracking has decreased overlay life. Because volumetric tests failed to provide conclusive relationships between asphalt properties and overlay distress, further research is needed to identify mechanistic or field tests that could correlate asphalt properties with concrete overlay performance. Once this additional research is completed, the selection procedures identified could be refined and placed in the design guide. A life-cycle cost analysis of overlays would also be useful for decision-makers considering bonded concrete overlays of asphalt.


This Technical Summary pertains to Report 2017-24, “MnDOT Thin Whitetopping Selection Procedures,” published June 2017. 

Research Confirms Low-Binder Asphalt Pavement Mixtures Prone to Cracking

Disk-shaped compact tension test
The disk-shaped compact tension test determines fracture energy of pavement samples, a strong predictor of cracking performance.

Research showed that lower asphalt binder mixtures are susceptible to premature cracking. The current use of coarse-graded mix designs should be adjusted to narrow the gradation difference between larger and smaller aggregates in the mixes. While the research suggests such mixes should be used sparingly in Minnesota, it did not provide definitive data suggesting the practice should be stopped altogether. The practice may continue on a limited basis.

What Was the Need?

Introduced in 1993, Superpave has successfully helped transportation agencies in northern regions design asphalt pavements that are less susceptible to thermal cracking. When tested, Superpave-compliant designs were found to resist both rutting and thermal cracking.

Gradation-based design approaches have also allowed for the use of coarse-graded, low asphalt binder mixtures. These mix designs establish a maximum aggregate size and reduce the range of usable gradations. Such coarse-graded designs meet MnDOT specifications because the maximum aggregate size falls within the acceptable gradation range. However, the reduced fine aggregate content made possible by the use of coarse aggregates leads to a mix that, while still within specifications, offers less surface area to be coated by the asphalt binder and can encourage unwelcome permeability in the field. To win low-bid competitions, contractors have embraced these low-binder, coarse-graded designs to reduce binder and aggregate costs.

Transportation engineers noticed that these pavements seemed to “gray out” or lose their dark color more quickly than previous asphalt designs. These pavements also seemed to grow somewhat more brittle and were less able to rebound from loading. Such asphalts are thought to be prone to quicker failure than mixes with finer aggregate and more binder. Road designers typically attribute thermal cracking and potholing in low-binder asphalt to the increased permeability that leads to water incursion and freeze-thaw damage.

What Was Our Goal?

The goal of this project was to determine how well low-binder asphalt pavements per-form and whether current designs make sense in terms of cost–benefit and durability. Researchers would identify any relationship between reduced bitumen use and potential for cracking, and would suggest changes to specifications for coarse-graded asphalt pavement mixtures to prevent such cracking issues.

What Did We Do?

Researchers worked with MnDOT to identify 10 pavement locations in Minnesota that used 13 coarse-graded, low-binder asphalt mix designs. Investigators extracted data on cracking, roughness and other factors for these sites from MnDOT’s pavement management system. The research team then visited the sites and inspected the pavements.

Researchers developed a coring plan, and field samples were cored for volumetric analysis to determine the binder, aggregate, air void level and other properties of each mixture. They also tested permeability and dynamic modulus, and conducted fracture energy testing to determine cracking resistance.

Investigators used performance modeling to analyze the test results of pavement proper-ties and project pavement durability. Then they compared the projected performance to actual field performance. From this assessment, they drew recommendations for modifying specifications for MnDOT low-binder, coarse-graded asphalt mixtures.

What Did We Learn?

This study suggests MnDOT should reduce its use of coarse-graded asphalt mixtures, but the findings did not provide sufficient data to justify prohibiting the use of coarse- graded, low-binder asphalt designs.

Low-binder mixtures were prone to thermal and transverse cracking. Their high permeability left them vulnerable to premature moisture and freeze-thaw damage. Field and laboratory testing and modeling demonstrated that coarser mixtures produce excessive cracking in a short period of time. Thin overlays of 3 inches or less crack more quickly than thick overlays of 4 to 6 inches. Mechanistic-empirical simulations showed that low-binder asphalt mixtures were significantly inferior to higher-binder mixtures in terms of thermal cracking.

Most of the high-cracking mixtures showed low fracture energy in testing, suggesting the value of fracture energy testing and modeling. Disk-shaped compact tension testing showed that higher permeability mixtures correlate reasonably well with lower fracture energy. Eight of the 13 mixtures were more permeable than recommended, and six significantly so. Typical volumetric properties poorly predicted cracking.

To better project pavement performance, researchers recommend that MnDOT maintain volumetric testing-based specifications, but add performance testing-based specifications and testing designs for fracture energy, fracture resistance, modulus and other parameters. For Superpave designs, investigators suggest using a narrower aggregate gradation range, reducing the gradation gap between minimum and maximum aggregates in mixes.

What’s Next?

Although the research validates MnDOT engineers’ anecdotal concerns, the pavements evaluated were mostly overlays, which are known to be susceptible to transverse cracking because of flaws in underlying pavement layers. MnDOT may weigh the results and adjust specifications, but would likely require further study of coarse-graded mixture performance before ruling out its use or identifying situations in which coarse-graded mixtures may be the best option. Additional research could consider the use of nonuniform lift designs for asphalt pavements, varying mixes for each lift in the structure rather than using a single, uniform mix for every layer in the full depth of the pavement.


This post pertains to Report 2017-27, “Impact of Low Asphalt Binder for Coarse HMA Mixes,” published June 2017. 

Winter seminars highlight research on work-zone safety, culvert design, and more

Join us in person on the U of M campus or tune in online to the CTS winter research seminars. The seminars will highlight a sampling of the latest transportation research at the U of M.

Here’s this year’s seminar schedule:

Each seminar will be held in Room 50B at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Or, if you can’t make it in person, you can watch the seminars live online or view recordings posted after the events. For details about the live broadcasts, see the individual seminar web pages.

There’s no cost to attend, and each seminar qualifies for one Professional Development Hour.

Hope to see you there!

MnROAD celebrates 20th anniversary, prepares for next research phase

Researchers from around the world rely on Minnesota’s pavement testing center, MnROAD.

Minnesota alone saves at least $33 million each year, thanks to quantifiable advances made at MnROAD. The annual nation-wide savings is thought to be even larger: $749 million.

Established in 1994, MnROAD partners with the FHWA, industry and dozens of other states and countries to conduct research on two live test tracks in rural Albertville.

No other cold-weather facility offers such an array of pavement types with thousands of electronic sensors recording both environmental changes and dynamic truck testing.

“If not for MnROAD, many of our projects wouldn’t be nearly as successful,” said Highway Research Engineer Larry Wiser of the Federal Highway Administration.

At an Aug. 6 open house, this one-of-a-kind research facility celebrated 20 years of finding ways to make roads last longer, perform better and cost less.

Two separate road segments contain 51 test cells, with different combinations of surface materials, aggregate bases and subgrades, as well as variations in structural design and drainage features.

MnROAD consists of two unique road segments located next to Interstate 94.
MnROAD consists of two unique road segments located next to Interstate 94.

Annual Savings

MnROAD’s initial research on pavement life and performance (from 1994 to 2006) reduced maintenance costs, repairs and motorist delay.

In the second phase of research, MnROAD reconstructed almost 40 test cells for more than 20 different studies. The benefits derived from this work is estimated to be worth nearly nine times what the studies cost – and that’s just the benefit for Minnesota.

“We’re excited for the third phase of research, which will be mainly focused on maintenance and rehabilitation,” said MnROAD Operations Engineer Ben Worel. “We’ve seen the benefits of our past research and expect the same in the future.”

MnROAD’s facility includes:
– A test section of I-94 carrying live traffic
– A low-volume roadway that simulates rural road conditions
– Thousands of sensors that record load response and environmental data.

Chip sealing: not just for local roads anymore (video)

Chip-sealing — spraying an asphalt emulsion over existing pavement and then covering it with fine aggregate — is a cost-effective alternative to resurfacing asphalt pavements. Traditionally, however, it has only been used on rural and low-volume urban roadways.

During a recent visit to MnROAD, we filmed a road crew chip-sealing a test section on I-94 and spoke with MnDOT Research Project Supervisor Tom Wood, who explained why chip sealing can also be an effective treatment for high-volume roadways.

*Note: This story was updated on 08/12/2014 to clarify that the chip sealing shown in the video involves spraying an “asphalt emulsion” rather than “hot liquid asphalt,” as stated in an earlier version of this post.