Scientists at a Dutch university are taking back the streets with the development of the world’s first bio-asphalt, a sustainable alternative to the traditional, carbon-heavy asphalt used on roads today. In collaboration with the Dutch government, researchers at Wageningen University and Research Center have begun a two-year test on a 100-meter stretch of road in the Netherland’s Zeeland province in order to determine if bio-asphalt will make a feasible alternative to the current standard.

The innovation lies in the replacement of the fossil-fuel component of asphalt called bitumen, which constitutes about 5 percent of a complete asphalt composite. Researchers substituted bitumen with lignin, a plant-based polymer found in the cell walls of plants and trees. The renewable nature of this plant polymer is in part why bio-asphalt would be such a strong “green” investment. According to a press release by Wageningen University, there exists an “endless supply of large amounts of lignin” in nature. Lignin is also a by-product of both industrial paper production and ethanol production, leaving natural resources untapped as plant-based waste from other industries is recycled back into the roads.

The investment in lignin also makes sense because it is expected to perform just as well as traditional asphalt. “We discovered that lignin had very similar properties to bitumen,” said Richard Gosselink, coordinator of Wageningen University’s Lignin Platform, in the press release. Ensuring that lignin possesses physical properties like dimensional stability, which guarantees that asphalt will not shrink or expand with variations in climate, will be determined in the two-year testing period.

Even as a replacement, bio-asphalt is expected to go above and beyond the performance of traditional asphalt while potentially saving carbon consumption on multiple fronts, according to Gosselink. “We want to see whether the rolling resistance of the asphalt is improved by the lignin,” he said. “This may reduce the noise and fuel consumption of the traffic on the road, saving even more fossil fuel.”

— Grant Stringer


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