Glass has become an increasingly versatile material in the eyes of people as of late and has now surpassed the idea of being a fragile material with which to handle with care. It has gained increasing popularity as a structural material. In fact, scientists are now using this structural integrity as a component in a prototype solar road panel. The argument is that as oil prices increase in the coming years, petroleum-based asphalt will become less viable as an infrastructure option. Instead, why not have the roads pay for themselves and more during their lifetime? By sandwiching LEDs in between thick glass sheets, the 12’x12’ panels can light up with any number of shapes, words, or even just “painted” road lines. Photovoltaic cells embedded in the panels will generate all electricity for the LEDs plus more to go back into the grid.
The Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is taking the technology one step further. Rather than these panels merely acting as a replacement for roads, BIG imagines them as a means by which to reimagine the urban fabric altogether. In conjunction with driverless cars that communicate with each other, the firm proposed in their winning bid for Audi’s Urban Future Award that city plazas and streets could become a sort of dynamic symphony of light and interaction. A colored circle would appear around each person walking and would move with the person as they interact in the space. The new driverless cars would have a series of arrows in front of them, denoting their path as they progress forward. This path would actively adjust to nearby pedestrians in order to avoid crashing into anyone. The combined visuals of the cars’ arrows and the moving circles of people would cause the cityscape to constantly shift in color and movement.
With how much goes into solar panels now, though, is a nationwide infrastructure of solar road panels any more sustainable than asphalt? And is BIG’s approach to the technology taking the potential of it too far? Could light pollution become an even worse issue if BIG’s Urban Future were to come into fruition? Would it cause issues with people having trouble sleeping at night because the streets are constantly alive with shifting light? Overall, solar roads have serious potential in the energy harvesting realm if properly funded. Whether they should contribute to the creation of a light-up landscape remains to be seen.