This article was originally published in Catalyst, January 2022.
University researchers are investigating ways to extend the life of asphalt pavements and generate cost savings by adding innovative materials to asphalt mixes. In a recent study, they found that improving asphalt mixes with graphite nanoplatelets and taconite concentrates offers new possibilities for enhancing damage-detection techniques and restoring subsurface cracking using microwave energy.
New solutions are urgently needed to address Minnesota’s aging pavement infrastructure since current materials and technologies can’t keep up with the rate of deterioration and limited funding. MnDOT recently entered into a contract with the University of Minnesota to further explore new materials and technologies – including taconite and Graphite Nanoplatelets (GNP) – that could offer cost-effective solutions for longer-lasting pavement.
The university has investigated the use of taconite aggregates for more than a decade (see ongoing and completed research), and started investigating GNP-reinforced asphalt materials more than three years ago (see recently completed research). Both materials present very unique properties that can be used to better build and maintain asphalt pavements.
This research project will focus on two applications with significant potential in the pavement area:
Early detection and repair of cracking by developing a novel asphalt material in which GNP materials, taconite concentrate, and conventional asphalt binders are combined for damage sensing and healing. The material damage will be assessed by measuring the electrical resistance, while the damage healing will be achieved by applying microwave to the material.
Thermal enhancement of tack coat bonding between asphalt overlay lifts, using GNP and taconite concentrate and microwave heating. Poor bonding can result in many different pavement distresses that decrease the pavement structural strength and life, ranging from top-down cracking, potholes and fatigue failure.
Improving pavement durability
The latest data shows that 15 percent of roads in Minnesota are in poor condition, at a cost to each motorist $480 per year. Low-temperature cracking is one of the main causes of pavement failure in Minnesota. Studies have shown that early detection of damage and cracking and timely repair is essential for extending the lifespan of the pavements.
Each dollar spent in the early-stage of pavement life could eliminate or delay $6 to $10 in future rehabilitation or reconstruction costs.
A series of recent studies funded by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) and MnDOT showed that the GNP-modified asphalt binders and mixtures exhibit a significant improvement in both mechanical and compaction properties. The combination of the previous research and the proposed research will fully explore the properties of GNP-taconite modified asphalt binders and mixtures as a multi-functional pavement material, which will address various needs of MNDOT, including high fracture resistance, efficient compaction process, and cost-effective pavement preservation operations. By addressing these needs, the result of this research will lead to an innovative and efficient means to improve the long-term durability and resilience of asphalt pavements in Minnesota.
The two-year research project aims to explore the damage sensing and healing capability of asphalt binders and mixtures modified by GNP and taconite concentrates. The essential idea is to combine GNP and taconite concentrates with asphalt binders to make the final asphalt products electrical conductive. By measuring the change of electrical resistance, researchers will be able to determine the damage extent. When the damage extent reaches a certain level, the University will apply microwave to the pavement to generate heat, which will heal the cracks through viscous flow of warm asphalt binder. In addition, the thermal bonding capabilities of a novel tack coat material also modified with GNP and taconite concentrate will be investigated. The research will consist of four parts:
Electrical conductivity tests on GNP-taconite modified asphalt binders and mixtures
Modeling of relationship between electrical resistance and damage extent
Investigation of self-healing capability through microwave
Investigation of a microwave-based tack coat system to enhance thermal bonding in asphalt paving
Watch for new developments on this project here. Other Minnesota pavement research can be found at MnDOT.gov/research.
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.
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.
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.
Potholes are one of the biggest and most costly ongoing maintenance challenges faced by highway agencies. Despite considerable progress in pavement materials and mechanics, pothole repair has remained an area in which little progress has been made.
To make headway in this area, Minnesota transportation researchers studied critical factors in pothole formation and repair in order to identify solutions that would reduce the occurrence of potholes and increase the durability of repairs. They also investigated the potential of newer materials, such as taconite and graphite nanoplatelets (GNP), in repair mixes. Researchers looked at how to make winter patches more durable and also different shapes of patches.
“Our goal was to provide a scientific assessment of pothole repair materials and practices,” said University of Minnesota professor Mihai Marasteanu, the lead researcher. Project sponsors were the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board.
What Did We Do?
Researchers began by reviewing national and international literature about pothole causes and repair activities. They also surveyed MnDOT maintenance superintendents and local engineers on current repair practices.
Next, the research team conducted simulations of square, diamond, and round pothole repair shapes to determine if some shapes were more conducive to reducing stress in repair materials. This stress analysis included the use of different common pothole filling mixes and their interface with existing pavement materials.
In the next stage of research, the team evaluated six asphalt mixes for relevant mechanical properties: four winter mixes, a polymer-modified hot-mastic asphalt mix suitable for winter and summer use, and a summer mix in two forms modified with GNP. Mixes were evaluated for compaction and bonding, tensile strength, and water penetration.
Finally, researchers studied national and international pavement preservation and pothole prevention practices and the cost-effectiveness of pothole repair.
What Did We Learn?
Through this work, researchers learned that pothole prevention requires repairing pavement cracks as they develop—and sometimes, even timely repairs only slow pothole development.
Laboratory analysis showed that cold mixes compact and bond poorly. To be more effective, these materials require significant curing not possible in the field unless heating is provided. The polymer-modified mastic patching material that was heated was stronger than the winter mixes even at very cold temperatures. Most mastics are used in warm weather, but this material may be effective for winter uses.
Durable winter repairs require expensive patching materials and on-site heating technologies such as truck-mounted microwaves. “To make winter repairs last longer, you need to provide an external source of heat to cure winter patching materials,” Marasteanu says.
Taconite-based materials activated chemically or by heating potholes before and after filling offer promise for more durable repairs. GNP modifiers improved compaction, tensile strength, fracture energy, and fracture resistance in the summer mix.
Pothole repair samples performed poorly in water penetration tests, which suggests that most mixes will perform poorly under seasonal freeze-thaw stresses.
Also of note, the study’s exploration of pothole repair shapes found that circular repairs offer the best filling and compacting performance; repair materials cannot fill corners, even with significant compaction.
“We had been squaring off potholes, making sure patches were all at right angles. But in this study, we found that square patches increase stresses at the boundaries. The ideal is a circular patch,” said Todd Howard, Assistant County Engineer, Dakota County.
The most common pothole repair in Minnesota is throw-and-roll with HMA (using a truck’s tires to compact shoveled-in asphalt). Newer, more durable repairs include taconite-based materials activated chemically or by heating potholes with a truck-
mounted microwave unit before and after filling. While promising and, in the case of the microwave method, potentially effective in extreme cold, these approaches require further research before becoming widely used in winter and spring repairs.
GNP-modified mixes also warrant further study, especially in winter mixes. If MnDOT can encourage cost tracking, analysis of the cost-effectiveness of various pothole repair methods, including the mastic tested in this research, may become possible.