Tag Archives: pavement

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.

Design Spreadsheet Offers Alternatives to Protect Pavements from Frost Damage

Researchers have developed a simple design tool for determining the amount of frost-free materials needed for a specific site’s subgrade to prevent frost and freeze-thaw damage to pavements.

“This tool will help us optimize construction to provide the best pavement,” said Steve Henrichs, Assistant Pavement Design Engineer, MnDOT Office of Materials and Road Research

Since 1995, MnDOT has required the use of frost-free materials (FFM) in subgrade depths of 30 to 36 inches for asphalt pavements, based on traffic load requirements. It is not clear that such FFM requirements are effective. In some areas, 30 inches may be excessive and, therefore, unnecessarily expensive; in others, 36 inches of FFM may not be enough, leading to costly pavement failure and repair. MnDOT needed a research-based pavement subgrade design procedure for resisting frost damage in pavements.

“Frost protection has not been studied in depth recently. This research used inputs based on soil type, location and expected frost depth, and didn’t require advanced modeling or expensive laboratory testing,” said Matthew Oman, Principal Engineer, Braun Intertec Corp.

What Was Our Goal?

The goal of this project was to develop a procedure for optimizing subsurface materials and thicknesses based on existing subgrade soils and geographic areas in Minnesota in order to resist pavement damage from frost action.

What Did We Do?

Researchers first reviewed existing literature on frost action and frost susceptibility. They synthesized national and international research and looked at practices and standards for mitigating frost action in states and countries with climates similar to Minnesota’s. Then they reviewed MnDOT’s current and historical policies and practices.

2018-06-p1-image
Researchers reviewed charts and other resources on cold temperatures and structural insulation needs, like this map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The central effort in this research was to examine existing pavements in Minnesota to characterize pavement performance and winter profiles. Researchers and the Technical Advisory Panel selected 72 pavement sites for study based on soil types (such as glacial till, clay, silt, sand and peat); pavement types (including concrete, asphalt and composite); subsurface materials and thickness; and weather conditions. The team evaluated construction logs, project plans, management data and subsurface investigations, and they augmented Minnesota-specific data with performance and soil data from the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) Long-Term Pavement Performance (LTPP) program. Researchers created winter pavement profiles of most of the sites and compared them with roughness and ride quality data collected the previous summer.

Finally, the team analyzed performance trends and design and construction details to assess the effect of frost heave on ride quality. Using the findings from this effort, the team built a design tool for determining what pavement structures require of subgrades to resist environmental effects based on project location, projected frost depth and soil type.

What Did We Learn?

The initial evaluation did not produce strong correlations between winter ride quality and factors like FFM depth, grading soil depth and region. Winter ride quality measurements were poorer than summer measurements, but the role of FFMs remained unclear. Insufficient data, outliers and other questionable information were culled from the records, which were then amplified with data from other pertinent historical sources. Results from this effort suggested that FFM depth may improve pavement performance by incrementally reducing ride deterioration, particularly at depths of 25 inches or greater.

Review of relevant LTPP data established that shallower FFM depths and greater silt content in subgrades correlate with poor pavement ride quality. Silty soils, which have low permeability and produce high capillary effects, have long been considered susceptible to frost damage.

Researchers avoided thermodynamic modeling and analysis—and kept the design tool simple—by selecting subgrade silt content as a proxy for frost susceptibility. The spreadsheet tool uses project location (latitude and longitude), predicted frost depth and subgrade soil silt content as the key factors in frost susceptibility of pavements. The tool recommends frost treatment ranges from about 30 percent of predicted frost depth for soils with zero silt to over 80 percent of predicted frost depth for soils with 100 percent silt. The spreadsheet requires limited laboratory testing of subgrade soils, is simple and inexpensive to implement, and produces results similar enough to MnDOT’s practices that they will not require dramatic change in construction needs.

What’s Next?

Researchers produced four spreadsheets, each employing a different combination of frost depth prediction and soil type characterization. Once MnDOT selects its preferred spreadsheet and determines if additional subsurface tests should be included as inputs, pilot implementation will begin. Additional study to enhance the tool could include investigating MnROAD cells further, collecting more winter ride quality data, developing uniform frost depth prediction methods and tracking more information from new construction.

This post pertains to Report 2018-06, “Designing Base and Subbase to Resist Environmental Effects on Pavements,” published February 2018. The full report can be accessed at mndot.gov/research/reports/2018/201806.pdf.

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. 

Using Recycled Concrete Aggregate in New Concrete Pavement Mixes

Using recycled pavement as aggregate in new concrete mixes can save money and promote environmental sustainability. New design methods published in a new research report allow engineers to create more durable mixes from recycled aggregate than in the past, reducing the need for virgin aggregate, a diminishing and expensive resource.

“This report shows that a lot can be done with recycled aggregate,” said Matt Zeller, Executive Director, Concrete Paving Association of Minnesota. “We can get the strength up to that of concrete with virgin aggregate by bumping our mix design and lowering our water-to-cement ratio.”

“Concrete pavement made with RCA can be beneficial both economically and environmentally,” said Farhad Reza, Professor, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Department of Mechanical and Civil Engineering.

Reza served as the project’s principal investigator.

What Was the Need?

When pavements are due for reconstruction, the old pavement is frequently crushed to aggregate-sized particles and used as the base course for new pavement. In the 1980s, MnDOT and other state transportation agencies began using such recycled aggregate in the concrete course as well. But this latter practice was discontinued by the early 1990s due to mid-slab cracking observed in pavements constructed with such concrete. Using recycled concrete aggregate (RCA) in the base course has continued, however.

Newer mechanistic-empirical design methods and performance engineered mixtures have led to improved RCA mixtures. For example, concrete mixtures now have lower water-to-cement ratios. These advances present an opportunity to re-evaluate the use of recycled aggregates in concrete mixes, which aligns with two important trends: the diminishing availability of virgin, high-quality aggregate, and the growing federal emphasis on sustainable design. Using recycled concrete as aggregate fulfills the three basic principles of sustainability: performance, environmental stewardship and cost-effectiveness.

What Was Our Goal?

Researchers sought to evaluate the performance of selected sections of concrete pavement in Minnesota that had been constructed with RCA; examine field samples and lab mixes; and develop guidelines for successful use of recycled aggregate in new concrete pavements.

What Did We Do?

Researcher vibrates RCA mix samples in a box.
Investigators vibrated RCA mixes in sample boxes to prepare the mixes for mechanical analysis.

After a literature search on the use of RCA in new concrete pavements, investigators examined the following issues:

  • Historical Performance. The research team gathered and compared data on performance, ride quality and durability for 212 miles of RCA pavement and for 212 miles of regular concrete pavement in the state. Both pavement samples had been built in the same time period and had had similar traffic levels.
  • Materials and Constructability. Investigators analyzed the ride quality of two-lift (or two-layer) concrete pavement test sections built in 2010 at the MnROAD test facility, using modeling to project long-term performance based on the historical evaluation. They conducted tests on nine cores pulled from the RCA pavements and tested new mixes made with recycled aggregate from Olmsted County, Minnesota. For comparison, they tested virgin aggregates from a Mankato, Minnesota, plant and fines from a Henderson, Minnesota, site.
  • Life-Cycle Cost Analysis. The research team conducted a life-cycle cost analysis of new RCA mixes and traditional concrete mixes, comparing their performance and cost-effectiveness.
  • RCA Guidelines. Based on the historical analysis, laboratory testing and modeling, and life-cycle cost analysis, the researchers developed new guidelines for the design and construction of pavements containing RCA in concrete mixes.

What Did We Learn?

Results showed that using RCA in concrete pavements can save money and is a sustain-able practice that produces durable concrete pavement.

  • Historical Performance. Most of the existing pavement studied had not reached the terminal ride quality index of 2.5—the level that generally indicates a major pavement rehabilitation must be performed. Analysis showed that rehabilitation is required, on average, at about 27 years of service for RCA pavements and at 32 years for standard concrete pavements.
  • Materials and Constructability. Mix design can be adjusted to achieve traditional strength levels that older RCA mixes did not reach. Elimination of fines and stricter adherence to gradation specifications for concrete aggregate can achieve workable and durable mixes that are less likely to suffer excess drying shrinkage. Pavements designed in this way meet the standards of the Federal Highway Administration’s INVEST program for sustain-ability in highway construction.
  • Life-Cycle Cost Analysis. Long-life RCA pavements are more economical in cost-benefit terms than are thinner, shorter-life RCA pavements.
  • RCA Guidelines. Researchers developed specification recommendations and design guidelines for the use of RCA in new pavement construction. Trial mixes are critical, and absorption and compressive strength must be examined before use. Recycled fines are not recommended, but otherwise RCA can be used in the full range of aggregate sizes between minimum and maximum. Recycled concrete pavement may not produce enough aggregate for both pavement and base course, but acquiring extra RCA to make the base course 70 percent recycled and 30 percent virgin makes the new pavement economical and sustainable.

What’s Next?

Keeping detailed records on mix designs used and tracking mix performance over time will help MnDOT to further refine its use of recycled aggregate in concrete mixes and will provide robust data on the performance of more sophisticated RCA mixes. A research team may want to consider using lower-quality recycled concrete as a bottom lift and higher-quality recycled concrete with virgin aggregate in the top lift. Methods for managing water input with recycled aggregate to achieve proper water-to-cement ratios warrant further study.


This Technical Summary pertains to Report 2017-06, “Evaluation of Recycled Aggregates Test Section Performance,” published February 2017.

Taconite byproduct reduces road wear from studded tires

In a recent project, the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) used a byproduct of Minnesota’s taconite mining industry for a section of the Alaska Glenn Highway.

The taconite byproduct—Mesabi sand—serves as the aggregate of a sand-seal treatment for a 4,600-foot stretch of the highway just north of Anchorage. Sand seals are an application of a sealer, usually an emulsion, immediately followed by a light covering of a fine aggregate (the sand).

“Our goal was to explore pavement preservation measures that extend pavement life and that also resist studded tire wear,” says Newton Bingham, central region materials engineer with the Alaska DOT. “Studded tires are allowed from mid-September until mid-April, and they cause rapid pavement wear.”

For the project, the Alaska DOT obtained sample pavement cores from the test area in 2014. Researchers then applied sand seals with two different hard aggregates—calcined bauxite and the Mesabi sand—to the surface of the cores to evaluate the effectiveness of each treatment.

Larry Zanko, senior research program manager of the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at the University of Minnesota Duluth, was the on-site representative for the taconite sand analysis. NRRI focuses on strategies to recover and utilize mineral-resource-based byproducts such as taconite and find potential beneficial end-uses for them.

“Taconite is one of the hardest natural aggregates,” he says. “Minnesota’s taconite mining industry generates tens of millions of tons of byproduct materials every year that could be used as pavement aggregate. Friction aggregates could be a higher-value niche for the industry.”

Testing of the sand-seals showed similar wear resistance for both types of aggregates. “We chose taconite sand since it is available from Minnesota as an industrial byproduct, whereas calcined bauxite sand has to be imported from nations on the Pacific Rim and costs more due to shipping,” Bingham says.

The Alaska DOT reports good performance to date on Glenn Highway and is funding ongoing pavement wear measurement.

NRRI researchers are also studying the use of taconite for other pavement applications. Funded by MnDOT, Zanko’s team developed (and later patented) a taconite compound for repairing pavement cracks and patching potholes (see an article the September 2016 Catalyst). The long-lasting patches reduce maintenance costs and traffic disruption. In continuing work funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, researchers will refine the repair compound and develop and field-test a low-cost mechanized system for pavement and pothole repairs.

Videos trace progress in traffic operations, pavement design

Last month, CTS debuted two videos about the many contributions U of M researchers have made—and are still making—in traffic operations and pavement design.

The videos are one of the ways CTS is marking 30 years of transportation innovation. Our goal is to show how research progresses over time—from curiosity to discovery to innovation. The videos also show how U of M research meets the practical needs of Minnesotans in the Twin Cities metro and throughout the state.

The first video focuses on improving traffic operations, a research focus since our earliest days. Professor Emeritus Panos Michalopoulos invented Autoscope® technology to help transportation agencies capture video images of traffic and analyze the information, enabling better traffic management. Autoscope was commercialized in 1991, and the technology has been incorporated into products sold and used worldwide.

Current traffic operations research builds on this strong foundation. For example, the U’s Minnesota Traffic Observatory, directed by John Hourdos, develops data collection tools such as the Beholder camera system. The system is deployed on high-rise rooftops overlooking a stretch of I-94 in Minneapolis—an area with the highest crash frequency in Minnesota—to help the Minnesota Department of Transportation reduce congestion and improve safety.

The second video showcases U of M research on pavement design. Developing pavements that can stand up to Minnesota’s harsh climate is a continuing priority for researchers, whose work has led to new methods, tools, and specifications to extend pavement life. The video also looks at how research teams are pushing the envelope with use of materials such as taconite waste and graphene nano-platelets for pavement applications.

 

Thicker may not equal stronger when building concrete roadways

Transportation agencies have long placed high importance on the thickness of their concrete roadways, making it a major focus of control and inspection during construction. While it is commonly believed thicker concrete pavements last longer, there is little data to support this claim.

“One big reason for the lack of data on the relationship between concrete pavement thickness and performance is the destructive nature of these measurements,” says Lev Khazanovich, a former professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering. “Concrete thickness is typically assessed by coring—a destructive, expensive, and time-consuming test that only offers widely spaced measurements of thickness.”

In a MnDOT-funded study, U of M researchers set out to fill this knowledge void by leveraging recent advances in the nondestructive testing of pavements that allow for large-scale, rapid collection of reliable measurements for pavement thickness and strength. They conducted four evaluations on three roadways in Minnesota using ultrasonic technology to collect more than 8,000 measurements in a dense survey pattern along with a continuous survey of observable distress.

“We found that both pavement thickness and stress measurements are highly variable, with a half-inch of variation in thickness about every 10 feet,” Khazanovich says. “Interestingly, three of the four surveys averaged less than design thickness, which is contrary to typical accounts of contractors building slightly thicker slabs in order to avoid compensation deductions.”

Data analysis showed that exceeding design thickness did not seem to increase or decrease pavement performance. However, a measurement of pavement strength and quality known as “shear wave velocity” did produce valuable findings. “A drop in the shear wave velocity strength measurement corresponded to an increase in observable pavement distresses such as cracking and crumbling,” Khazanovich explains. “This was especially apparent when we were able to easily identify locations of construction changes, where significant changes in shear wave velocity matched up with observable distress.”

The results of this study illustrate the importance of material quality control and uniformity during construction, since alterations in pavement strength and quality may significantly influence pavement performance. In addition, researchers say that despite inconclusive thickness results, it is still important that pavement has significant thickness to carry its intended traffic load over its service life. Finally, the study demonstrates that new methods of ultrasonic shear wave velocity testing are useful for identifying changes in construction and design that could lead to higher rates of pavement distress.

A look at five great environmental research projects

To mark Earth Day 2016, MnDOT Research Services is taking a glance at five stellar examples of current research projects at MnDOT that involve pollution control, wetland mitigation, road salt reduction and new ways of recycling pavement.

1: Reducing Road Construction Pollution by Skimming Stormwater Ponds 

Temporary stormwater ponds with floating head skimmers can remove clean water from the surface of a settling pond.

Soil carried away in stormwater runoff from road construction sites can pollute lakes and rivers.

Stormwater settling ponds provide a place for this sediment to settle before the water is discharged into local bodies of water. However, since stormwater ponds have limited space, a mechanism is needed to remove clean water from the pond to prevent the overflow of sediment-laden water.

MnDOT-funded researchers designed temporary stormwater ponds with floating head skimmers that can remove clean water from the surface of the settling pond, using gravity to discharge water into a ditch or receiving body.

The study, which was completed in spring 2014, identified five methods for “skimming” stormwater ponds that can improve a pond’s effectiveness by 10 percent. MnDOT researchers also created designs for temporary stormwater ponds on construction sites with the capacity to remove approximately 80 percent of suspended solids.

These designs will help contractors meet federal requirements for stormwater pond dewatering. Researchers also determined how often a pond’s deadpool must be cleaned, based on watershed size and pool dimensions.

2: Roadside Drainage Ditches Reduce Pollution More Than Previously Thought  

Photo of roadside ditch
Stormwater infiltration rates at five swales were significantly better than expected based on published rates.

Stormwater can pick up chemicals and sediments that pollute rivers and streams. Roadside drainage ditches, also known as swales, lessen this effect by absorbing water. But until recently, MnDOT didn’t know how to quantify this effect and incorporate it into pollution control mitigation measures.

In a study completed in fall 2014, researchers evaluated five Minnesota swales, measuring how well water flows through soil at up to 20 locations within each swale.

A key finding: grassed swales are significantly better at absorbing water than expected, which may reduce the need for other, more expensive stormwater management practices, such as ponds or infiltration basins.

This could save MnDOT and counties significant right-of-way and construction costs currently expended on more expensive stormwater management techniques.

3: Could Permeable Pavements Eliminate Road Salt Use on Local Roads? 

Robbinsdale
Even with little or no road salt, a permeable pavement like this porous asphalt in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, collects little slush and snow in the winter because it warms well and remains porous enough to infiltrate surface water effectively.

Road salt is used for de-icing roadways during winter months, but can have a negative impact on the environment.

This research, which was just approved for funding through the Minnesota Local Road Research Board in December 2015, will investigate the reduction in road salt application during winter months that can be attained with permeable pavements, while still providing for acceptable road safety.

Some initial investigations (see previous study) suggest that road salt application can be substantially reduced, even eliminated, with permeable pavement systems. The proposed research will investigate this hypothesis more thoroughly, and further document the reduction in road salt application that can be expected with permeable pavement.

4: Highway 53 Shows Potential of Using Road Construction Excavation Areas For Wetland Mitigation

IMG_2764
This photo from spring 2015 shows that wetlands have begun to take hold along Highway 53.

Road construction in northeast Minnesota often causes wetland impacts that require expensive mitigation. However, borrow areas excavated for road construction material can be developed into wetland mitigation sites if hydric vegetation, hydric soils and adequate hydrology are provided. Fourteen wetland mitigation sites were constructed north of Virginia, Minnesota along the U.S. Trunk Highway 53 reconstruction project corridor and evaluated for wetland.  The sites were established with the goal of mitigating for project impacts to seasonally flooded basin, fresh meadow, shallow marsh, shrub swamp, wooded swamp, and bog wetlands. All but one of the sites consistently meet wetland hydrology criteria.

The sites contain a variety of plant communities dominated by wet meadow, sedge meadow, and shallow marsh. Floristic Quality Assessment (FQA) condition categories for the sites range from “Poor” to “Exceptional.”

According to the research report published in March 2016, these sites have shown the potential for creating mitigation wetlands in abandoned borrow pits in conjunction with highway construction. Adaptive management, particularly water level regulation, early invasive species control, tree planting, and continued long-term annual monitoring can make mitigation sites like these successful options for wetland mitigation credit.

5: Recycling Method Could Give Third Lives to Old Concrete Roads 

2016-14 Image
This photo shows a cold in-place recycling equipment train in action.

MnDOT already extends the lives of some old concrete highways by paving over them with asphalt instead of tearing them up. Now MnDOT hopes to add a third life for these old concrete roads by using a process called cold in-place recycling to re-use that existing asphalt pavement when it reaches the end of its life.

Cold in-place recycling (CIR) uses existing pavements, without heat, to create a new layer of pavement. It involves the same process of cold- central plant mix recycling (which is being employed by MnDOT for the first time on two shoulder repair projects this year), but it is done on the road itself by a train of equipment. It literally recycles an old road while making a new road.

CIR has been in use in Minnesota for 20 years, but only with hot-mix asphalt (HMA) over gravel roads. The purpose of a new study, which was approved for funding in April 2016, is to validate Iowa’s promising new practice using CIR on bituminous over concrete.

In this research project (see proposal), MnDOT will use cold-in-place recycling to replace the asphalt pavement on a concrete road and then evaluate it for several years, comparing it also with control sections.

Along with the potential of a better service life, the cost of CIR is much lower than new hot mix asphalt (HMA). Therefore, a 20-percent to 30-percent price reduction per project may be realized.

Partnership planned for nation’s top pavement testing facilities

The nation’s two largest pavement testing centers are planning to partner in order to better leverage research performed at their cold and hot-weather facilities.

MnROAD, located in Albertville, Minnesota, and its southern U.S. equivalent, the National Center for Asphalt Technology in Auburn, Alabama, are full-scale test tracks that evaluate different types of pavement material under real-life conditions using semi-trailer truck and live interstate traffic.

Each facility has a history of evaluating the performance of pavement preservation treatments, including chip sealing, micro-surfacing, crack sealing and thin overlays. To address needs in both northern and southern climates, similar test sections would be developed at each facility to address national issues.

“By working together we can maximize the potential for each track,” said MnROAD Operations Engineer Ben Worel. “A closer relationship between NCAT and MnROAD is a logical progression in developing and evaluating new sustainable technologies, pavement systems and construction methods that lead to safer, quieter, lower-cost and longer-lasting roads.”

A test track at the National Center for Asphalt Technology in Alabama, MnROAD's hot-weather equivalent.
A test track at the National Center for Asphalt Technology in Alabama, MnROAD’s hot-weather equivalent.

The partnership idea was introduced to federal officials earlier this month at a national pavement performance conference in Minneapolis. Final details must still be worked out.

One of the workshops at the event discussed the proposed partnership between MnROAD and NCAT. Further talks are expected at the end of October.

“NCAT is thrilled about the opportunity for a partnership with MnROAD to address pavement research needs at a national level,” said NCAT Director Randy West. “Bringing NCAT and MnROAD results together will expand the climate base, loading distribution and other important pavement factors.”

Pavement conference

Pavement engineers from around the nation gathered Sept. 2 to 5 for the Midwestern Pavement Preservation Partnership forum and the SHRP2 R26 Workshop for the Preservation of High-Traffic-Volume Roadways, which featured tours of MnROAD, Minnesota’s cold weather pavement testing facility.

Conference participants also reviewed the latest preservation techniques being developed for high volume roads. MnROAD’s chip sealing study, which demonstrated that highways with an average daily traffic (ADT) of 58,000 can be successfully chip sealed, was especially attention-grabbing for agencies who don’t chip seal on roads with more than 2,000 ADT.

A national panel of speakers included Michael Trentacoste, director of the federal Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (pictured in top photo), who discussed Federal Highway Administration’s support of pavement preservation research and implementation.

With about 160 people in attendance over four days, MnDOT Materials Engineer Jerry Geib said the conference was successful in sharing the benefits of pavement preservation techniques with other state DOTs and federal highway officials who want adopt new practices to help alleviate budget constraints.