In recent months, Nemkumar Banthia, professor in the department of civil engineering at the University of British Columbia (UBC) has had his eyes fixed on a road.
That road, though, happens to be more than 12,500 km from Vancouver, where he is based. It’s a demonstration project in a village about 90 km from Bengaluru and uses advanced materials and technology that could help with enhancing rural road connectivity.
The project is the result of research that marries materials science and structural engineering to create self-repairing roads that are cost effective, have greater longevity and are sustainable.
Banthia, who graduated from IIT-Delhi before moving to Canada 34 years ago, undertook the project under the auspices of the Canada-India Research Center of Excellence IC-IMPACTS, where he is scientific director.
In 2014, his team selected Thondebavi village, after a series of interactions with gram panchayat members and the local community. Based at UBC, the center is focused on research collaboration between Canada and India to develop and implement “community-based solutions to the most urgent needs of each nation”.
Construction of the road, which connects Thondebavi to the highway and replaces a dilapidated dirt track, was completed in the late winter of 2015, but the last few months were critical as it had to be monitored for how it lasted through the extreme heat of an Indian summer and the monsoon. Now, it can be claimed a success.
The road’s thickness, at about 100 mm, is about 60% less than that of a typical Indian road, reducing cost and materials. About 60% of the cement is replaced with flyash, thus curbing the usual carbon footprint, especially as cement production releases greenhouse gases. It comes with built-in crack healing, as high strength concrete is supplemented with fibre reinforcement with nano-coating that makes it absorb water and keeps the road hydrated.
Watch | How Professor Nemkumar Banthia’s team came up with the self-repairing road
Banthia described this as a “cute mechanism” and explained: “These are fibres which have a hydrophilic nano-coating on them. Hydrophilia means they attract water and this water then becomes available for crack healing. Every time you have a crack, you always have unhydrated cement and this water is now giving it the hydration capability, producing further silicates which actually closes the crack in time.”
Also, native drainage prevents the village from turning into a marshland as it often did during monsoon months.
Banthia, originally from Nagpur, said he expected the road to last about 15 years, far beyond the two-year lifespan of the average rural or mid-town road in India. It’s also 30% cheaper in terms of a first time cost, though the savings, he said, would be substantial over its life cycle.
Villagers, he said, have taken to the new road, since it connects each of the hamlet’s 1,200 residents, and allows them to take their produce to market easily.
With India requiring about 2.4 million km of rural roads, it isn’t surprising that this project may be replicated in other states, with initial discussions underway for similar roads in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. And the technology doesn’t have to be limited to villages since conversations have also been held with the ministry of road transport for a highway demonstration project. “There is a great deal of interest,” Banthia said.
That interest is not limited to India. Closer home, such a road could soon be constructed for a First Nations community near Edmonton in the Canadian province of Alberta. That comes with its own climactic challenges – extreme cold, winter snow and the thaw. But Banthia is confident such roads will show the path ahead for rural communities to overcome the connectivity deficit.