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.
A northern Minnesota mining byproduct could provide a more affordable option for a highly effective, but expensive pavement safety treatment called High Friction Surface Treatment (HFST), and help expand its usage across the state.
Researchers have refined an innovative, quick pothole repair method for both concrete and asphalt pavements without using asphalt or cement materials. Based on taconite, a plentiful Minnesota material, the repair mixture can be applied fairly quickly and shows promise as a cost-competitive, long-term solution for potholes.
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.
Researchers have found that peat has high potential to replace commercial compost in MnDOT’s standard bioslope and bioswale design for roadside ditches, and that taconite tailings performed comparably to the sand currently specified in MnDOT designs, with the additional benefit of removing phosphates.
Finding alternatives to commercial compost and sand for use in bioswales will help MnDOT meet regulatory requirements for stormwater runoff, while reducing the costs and environmental effects of transporting and storing these materials.
“The results of this project will very much facilitate the development of green infrastructure by reducing its cost to MnDOT and Minnesota local agencies, helping them to do more with less,” said Dwayne Stenlund, Erosion Control Specialist, MnDOT Erosion Control and Stormwater Management.
What Was Our Goal?
The objective of this project was to evaluate peat and muck excavated from construction activities, taconite tailings from area mining operations, and other stormwater quality filter media for use in bioswales and bioslopes along Minnesota highways. Laboratory and field tests of these products would examine their capacity to absorb water, retain pollutants and support plant growth to determine if they are beneficial and practicable in these designs.
What Did We Do?
Researchers began by conducting a comprehensive literature review on the use of bioslopes and bioswales as stormwater treatment best management practices. Then they collected peat and muck near a highway construction project, as well as locally sourced sand, compost, taconite tailings and commercial peat.
These materials, as well as various combinations of materials, were used in laboratory experiments to determine how well they:
Absorbed water, using a falling head test to measure saturated hydraulic conductivity, which indicates the rate at which water infiltrates a material.
Retained pollutants, using leaching experiments to quantify how well they removed copper, lead, zinc, nitrate and phosphate.
Sustained plant growth, using bioassays and greenhouse studies.
Finally, researchers conducted pilot field tests on three plots containing a 50/50 percent peat and sand mixture, and another three plots with a 50/50 percent compost and sand mixture. Between April and August of 2017, they monitored water infiltration, discharge water quality and vegetation establishment for these sites.
What Did We Learn?
“Ultimately, a combination of peat and taconite tailings will compare favorably with current MnDOT specifications for bioslope and bioswale design,” said Kurt Johnson, Research Fellow, University of Minnesota Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute.
Researchers found that peat has a strong potential for replacing commercial compost in MnDOT’s standard bioslope and bioswale designs, and that taconite tailings also performed comparably to the sand currently specified in these designs. However, muck has little potential to replace commercial compost or peat due to its low permeability, poor infiltration and filtration properties, and lack of support for plant growth.
Results for the three properties of interest follow:
Infiltration rate: While muck had an unacceptably low hydraulic conductivity, peat performed at least as well as compost, and taconite tailings as well as sand. Pilot tests showed that a 50/50 mix of peat and taconite tailings had a similar water storage capacity to a 50/50 mix of compost and sand.
Pollution retention: Muck absorbed only 50 percent of metals; salvaged peat, commercial peat and compost performed well, absorbing more than 80 percent. However, only taconite tailings showed the potential to remove phosphate. None of the materials removed nitrate.
Plant growth: Mixtures of compost or peat with sand or taconite tailings all performed well in providing a viable substrate for plant growth. Mixes containing compost performed the best in plant growth trials. Muck was difficult to mix with any other material, and its value for plant growth was minimal. Greenhouse study results showed no difference between sand and taconite tailings in their effect on plant growth response.
In a second phase of this project, “Development and Regionalization of In Situ Bioslopes and Bioswales,” MnDOT will conduct further laboratory tests on alternative materials for bioslopes and bioswales, and expand field tests to several sites in Minnesota that have been constructed using these materials. Researchers also recommend the development of specifications and detail drawings for the use of these materials.
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.
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.
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.