VICKSBURG, Miss.— From NASCAR racetracks to aircraft runways on military bases across the world, wherever they develop, potholes can cause serious problems. A team at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) was recently honored with an award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for their collaborative effort to address the worldwide problem of potholes with a unique innovation, Induction Hot-Mix Asphalt (iHMA).
Selected for the 2021 Interagency Partnership Award from the Southeast Region of the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer, iHMA was developed in ERDC’s Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory as a solution to the challenge of rapidly repairing damaged airfields.
“Airfields are some of our most valuable assets in the military— they’re the launching point for some of the most critical weapon systems. When they get damaged, that puts our operations at risk,” explained Dr. John Rushing, an ERDC research civil engineer. “The materials we have available right now to do expedient repairs, sometimes at remote places around the globe; they don’t work. They simply can’t handle the loads that are imparted from our fighter aircraft.”
That’s where Rushing and his team entered the picture in partnership with the U.S. Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC).
“We’d brainstorm ideas, and then our team in the laboratory would test them out,” Rushing said. “This longstanding relationship combined robust facilities with specialized expertise to tackle some of the toughest challenges with protecting military forces around the globe.”
Rushing said that after what seemed like “countless vain attempts,” the team had a breakthrough using induction technology, similar to the way people cook on a stovetop.
Typically, when hot-mix asphalt repairs are needed, materials must come from operating batch plants—which aren’t always nearby or available.
Together, the team devised a mixture that gives hot-mix asphalt quality performance while using pre-packaged cold-mix materials. In the field, this blend is placed into an induction heating system, and within five minutes, asphalt is ready to go at more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The next step is simply pouring it into the damaged area and compacting the mixture.
“When we put ours to the test, we found that it could survive hundreds of passes of those aircraft,” Rushing said.
“The iHMA solution is simple, but extremely unique,” Rushing explained, adding that nothing like iHMA was available on the commercial market. “It’s the same quality that we would get from a plant, and it’s going to offer us that high-quality, long-lasting repair. It’s fast; it’s durable; and we can design it to meet any traffic that we need to withstand.”
And for Rushing, this project wasn’t the first collaboration between ERDC and the AFCEC, but it was a special one.
“The Air Force was not only a sponsor of the work, but a true partner in collaboration as we worked through the technical challenges,” Rushing said. “We’ve worked together on so many facets of infrastructure repair, but this one was particularly attractive because it had such wide-ranging applications.”
And now that a solution to the pothole problem has been defined, the next step is using it to address those wide-ranging applications that Rushing mentioned. The team engaged ERDCWERX, an innovation hub that contracts with ERDC through a partnership intermediary agreement with DEFENSEWERX, to assist with technology transfer and commercialization. From there, Mississippi State University joined the collaboration and conducted a market-based assessment of the iHMA technology. Since then, the technology has been licensed for larger-scale commercialization.
“Right now, we’re finalizing our mix design to start producing the formulation in a full-scale plant,” Rushing said. “This is truly a story of collaboration and the unique perspectives that our partners bring to the table as we work to enhance the product’s maturity and promote its use to broader public benefit.”
“After all, the nuisance of potholes is not a unique military problem,” Rushing said, adding that AAA data estimates potholes cost drivers across the U.S. $3 billion in repairs annually. “It’s something that affects us all, and we believe that iHMA offers a convenient, rapid repair technology with unmatched quality.”
The iHMA team will be presented the award at a ceremony later this month.