U.S. Department of Transportation awards grant to engineering professors

Dr. Andrew Peters, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Dr. Nazimuddin “Wasi” Wasiuddin, professor of civil engineering, have been awarded a three-year, $460,000 Exploratory Advanced Research Program grant by the Federal Highway Administration of the United States Department of Transportation.

The Federal Highway Administration Exploratory Advanced Research Program awards grants to support innovative, promising new research in asphalt production, particularly projects that could lead to transformational changes to highway engineering and intermodal surface transportation in the United States. This project was selected for its potential applications in incorporating waste plastic into asphalt while improving its properties by making it more resilient. If successful, the project will reduce the amount of plastics that sit in landfills and reach the ocean.

For the project, “Improving the Compatibility of Waste Plastic and Asphalt Binder via Theoretically Justified Identification of Compatible Blends,” Peters and Wasiuddin will perform experiments and computational analysis to develop tests to optimize the modification process before mixing untested binders and specified types of waste plastics into asphalt and improve polymers. The research will optimize various existing approaches and provide guidance for how to adjust a process when confronted with common variations in waste plastic or fresh asphalt binder. Using methods developed in this research, the Federal Highway Administration will be able to quickly move to the next phase of development, which includes testing field performance, long term environmental impacts, health and safety.

During the advanced stages of this project, the researchers will collect samples of post-consumer waste plastic to analyze weathering effects and their influence on compatibility. The optimal percent of waste plastic to simultaneously maximize waste reuse and important asphalt properties will be determined, with the future potential to save millions of tons of plastic waste from the environment each year.

“This process goes deep into figuring out a mechanism for improving compatibility between waste plastic and asphalt binder,” Wasiuddin said of the project. “As soon as we figure that out, we will be able to maximize the usage of waste plastic into our pavement. I think, in other words, this project will contribute in valorization of waste plastic, which will ultimately lead toward the usage of some amount of the over 25 million tons of waste plastic that is currently being landfilled, by incorporating it into part of the 350 million tons of asphalt mixture that is produced each year.”

“Our approach includes combining fundamental studies using advanced simulation techniques,” Peters added, “with very applied experimental studies to understand how waste plastics interact with asphalt binder and how they differ from new polymers. This approach will not only produce better asphalt mixtures and allow the reduction of waste plastic in the environment, but provide fundamental insights into the specific interactions involved, providing a launching pad to further improvements in the future.”