From new roadways that will last longer to biomedical devices that address health care challenges, New Jersey-based researchers are finding new answers to old problems.
When cars and trucks roll up a stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike between Exit 3 and 4, the occupants may not know that they’re traveling on an advanced plastic-asphalt mixture that makes their trip a bit safer, while easing the burden on landfills. The few who are aware probably mutter a word of thanks to Rutgers Associate Engineering Professor Tom Bennert and his crew at the university’s Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT).
“We work closely with the NJ Department of Transportation, the Turnpike Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and other agencies on asphalt materials and flexible pavement engineering,” said Bennert, who is also the director of CAIT-Rutgers Asphalt Pavement Laboratory. “Our research is aimed at helping to create roads and pavements last longer, [that] are safer, and are manufactured with fewer natural resources by utilizing a greater percentage of recycled materials when appropriate.”
Road construction already typically uses a significant amount of recycled asphalt and concrete. But modifying the mixture – adding as little as less than one-half of 1%, by weight – with recycled plastic, ground-up waste rubber from discarded tires, and slag (stony waste matter that’s separated from metals during the smelting or refining of ore) can add traction to a road surface, reducing the chances of a skid during wet weather, while stiffening it in warm weather, reducing the incidence of buckling and separation.
“It looks like a regular road,” he added. “But it performs better and helps to relieve our landfills.”
There could be some potential drawbacks to the alternative surface, Bennert cautioned. “For one thing, the plastic-asphalt mix may be prone to more cracking in colder weather. Another concern is microplastics, which could be an environmental issue since the tiny bits and pieces may be ingested by smaller wildlife. That’s why we’re closely monitoring these and other projects.”
Other researchers are working on ways to improve people’s commutes, and to make roadways safer and more resilient.
The number of highway signs in New Jersey and other states with warnings like “Bridge Ices Before Road” could shrink, thanks to cutting-edge research at Rowan University. This initiative, funded by the Department of Defense, is just one part of the wide-ranging activities taking place at Rowan’s Center for Research and Education in Advanced Transportation Engineering Systems (CREATES).
“Among other projects, we are working to develop innovative construction materials for cold regions, in partnership with labs from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering Research and Development Center, the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) and the Geotechnical and Structural Laboratory,” noted Yusuf Mehta, a civil and environmental engineering professor in the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering who is also the co-founder and director of CREATES.
In one of the projects, “We are developing electrically heated pavement snow and ice removal solutions that allow us to heat pavement surfaces to temperatures just above freezing point,” detailed CREATES Co-founder and Associate Director Ayman Ali. “The goal would be to eliminate snow and ice on critical roadway sections such as bridges and airport runways.”
A crucial part of the testing and evaluation relies on the center’s Heavy Vehicle Simulator, which Mehta said is the only such device at a college or university in the northeastern United States. Housed at Rowan University’s South Jersey Technology Park through a cooperative agreement with CRREL, the $3 million machine can simulate both truck and aircraft loading with a maximum capacity reaching around 40,000 pounds of force, subjecting a highway or runway test strip to decades of traffic in less than six months while controlling temperature and other environmental conditions.
“We have also been retained by the New Jersey Department of Transportation as an academic partner to perform research for innovative materials and technologies to assist in making longer-lasting, more cost-effective, and sustainable pavements,” said Mehta. “Pavement is one of the most important and valuable assets of the surface transportation infrastructure. As a part of this contract agreement, CREATES is the research center that focuses on eight subject areas: innovative materials, innovative technologies, pavement management system, pavement design procedures, life-cycle cost analyses, pavement policy research, technology transfer, and on-call services.”
Focusing on the Pavement Management System, Ali noted that, “It is a way for NJDOT to monitor the health of existing infrastructure using vehicle-mounted sensors that can collect the location and severity of potholes and cracks on a roadway. Then the Pavement Management System will guide NJDOT in determining if and when certain roadways need to be repaired.”
Another project – led by Peter Jin, an associate professor in Rutgers’ Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and an affiliated member of the university’s CAIT – could bring some relief to the crawling pace that bedevils the 100,000 or so vehicles traveling through New Brunswick’s streets every day at peak hours. The initiative – which includes the university, telecommunications giant Verizon, smart mobility infrastructure management solutions company Iteris and others – has received more than $4 million to date from Middlesex County and NJDOT.
As part of the project, which is formally known as the DataCity Smart Mobility Testing Ground, high-resolution sensors have been strategically placed on traffic signals and roadside infrastructure along roadways and intersections across a 2.4-mile corridor in the city to capture vehicle and pedestrian activity. The data is processed at the roadside with Edge Computing technologies, and then fed to Middlesex County’s Smart Mobility Management Center on Hoes Lane in Piscataway. There, teams analyze the information and plan to use it to create streams of digital broadcasts that could turn mobile phones into a kind of Collision Early Warning System, alerting pedestrians and drivers alike of impending danger.
Theoretically, accidents would be reduced to a minimum if all vehicles had advanced self-driving systems, or if they were all retrofitted with devices that could link up to each other and roadside infrastructure, called Connected Vehicle Vehicle-to-Everything technologies, that would alert drivers to impending danger — like a pedestrian in their path, or a vehicle that’s getting too close. The challenge is that large swaths of the population cannot afford self-driving vehicles, while the price of a retrofit can easily be $12,000 or more, which is still beyond the reach of many people.
“Our concept, however, is designed to work with any pedestrian or driver who has a cellphone,” Jin explained. “We first conceptualized the idea in started in 2019 and, in collaboration with New Brunswick Development Corp. and the City of New Brunswick, we competed in the inaugural New Jersey Economic Development Authority innovation challenge, and were among the nine communities selected to develop early concepts of the projects. Since then, the team has received significant funding support from NJ Department of Transportation and Middlesex County to put the ideas into reality.”
His team is also sharing the data collected, and creating “digital twins” to form living labs both virtually and physically to support the R&D of next-generation smart mobility and safety solutions, in hopes of eventually rolling these systems out across every roadway. “We hope to develop a working prototype by end of this year,” he added. “If everyone is connected, then everyone can be alerted.”
Also at Rutgers, Hao Wang, an associate professor at the university and a researcher at the Rutgers Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation, is focused on “developing sustainable, resilient, and smart roadway and transportation infrastructure. I have worked on a variety of projects ranging from fundamental to applied research related to transportation infrastructure … from helping our roads achieve longer lasting life considering new climate change risks and minimizing the carbon footprint of construction materials, to studying how we can use infrastructure assets to facilitate adoption of electric vehicles and interface with autonomous vehicles of the future.”
Working with agencies like the state Department of Transportation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Wang and his team developed a new pothole-repair procedure that uses preheating to increase the longevity of asphalt pavement pothole repairs. “The data so far shows promising results in mechanical performance of the repaired pavement material when using the preheating approach,” he explained. “If the repair material can perform better and last longer, then it has the potential to last longer on our roadways once put down to fill in a pothole. Our next step is to bring this approach to real-world practice.”
Rowan is all-in when it comes to combining medical and engineering research and education, according to Mary Staehle, a biomedical engineering associate professor who leads the institution’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. Located in Glassboro, at the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering, the university offers undergraduate, graduate and several accelerated combined degree programs in the expanding field.
“Biomedical engineering is the intersection of medicine and engineering,” she said. “Rowan researchers are combining medical and engineering techniques to advance lifesaving approaches, from regenerative medicine to surgical robotics and beyond — and are developing personalized treatment options for pediatric cancer. Rowan researchers are combining medical and engineering techniques to advance lifesaving approaches.”
In April 2020, when personal protective equipment was in short supply worldwide, Rowan Biomedical Engineering faculty member Erik Brewer made 3D-printed couplings to attach hospital ventilator filters to the snorkel tubing on scuba diving masks. And in 2022, the N.J. Commission on Cancer Research in the New Jersey Department of Health awarded a $500,000 grant to support Rowan research – led by Department of Biomedical Engineering assistant professor Dr. Rachel Riley – aimed at developing less-invasive and more-personalized treatment options for pediatric acute myelogenous leukemia, which is the second-most common type of pediatric cancer.
Rowan researchers are also helping to revolutionize the core approach to medicine. “Personalized medicine, which uses an individual’s genes and other factors to help determine the best course of treatment, enables medical professionals to deliver customized treatment that may be more effective,” Staehle explained. “Rowan biomedical engineers are also developing artificial intelligence to support decision-making, while increasing detection limits for diagnostic imaging. It’s all part of an effort to further improve patient treatment and quality of life.”