Even though mankind has been researching asphalt for more than a century, the critical roadbuilding material still has many mysteries beneath its dark surface.
Accidental asphalt expert
“Even after more than 100 years of research we still lack an understanding of the internal structure of it,” said Martin Jasso, an assistant professor in the department of civil engineering and the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering.
Jasso has spent the last decade researching ways to improve the temperature range and durability of road surfaces. Too hard and the surface will crack, and roads that are too soft will deform.
Recently, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awarded the University of Calgary with $750,000 for asphalt research, matching research funds provided by Husky Energy.
The money will fund Jasso’s research for the next five years. He will study what makes a good asphalt combination and how to make the material’s entire life cycle more green.
Jasso himself stumbled into his career as an asphalt expert.
“Part of my studies when I was in Slovenia was working on different projects to try and improve polymers,” said Jasso. “What I didn’t know at the time was that those same polymers I was working on actually improved asphalt. It was a coincidence. This is how I got to Canada. I started to utilize my scientific endeavours in asphalt.”
Unlocking pavement secrets
Ever since he has been developing polymers and other ways to improve asphalt performance.
Most recently, Jasso has been attempting to understand how modifiers are contributing to the structure of asphalt and changing it, which could make it easier to predict what one can add to asphalt to produce a desired result without having use a trial and error approach. But this is a challenge.
“Generally, if you want to investigate the material you will do some testing and put it under a microscope,” said Jasso. “But with asphalt you cannot really observe internal structure, because by nature it is brown to black. You will be lost inside. You will not see how the structure is changing.”
Researchers must instead get this information through indirect observation.
The next generation
Jasso and his team will also be testing different paving mixes with small trials that simulate traffic and temperature changes. This includes finding ways to Incorporate post-consumer waste into mixes.
“This is what I will try to do in five years,” said Jasso. “I hope this will be just a little drop in the bucket of understanding asphalt, what it is, how to make it better, and what additives or modifiers to use.”
He explained studying asphalt is critically important, which is why he also plans to train other asphalt experts to continue studying the material after he is gone.
“Asphalt pavement is a crucial part of our country’s economy,” said Jasso, who noted that not only does a massive amount of traffic ride on asphalt pavement, but Canada has the ability to produce massive amounts of high quality asphalt products for the globe.
“Part of my research program is training highly qualified personnel,” said Jasso. “There is an acute shortage. It requires interdisciplinary training. We will need (more people) because the progress of our economy needs high quality roads.”