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Follow the Glow-in-the-Dark Road

Durable, long lasting material can be painted onto streets and sidewalks to eliminate the need for lamp posts

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Credit: Pro-Teq/Hamish Scott

While LED technology has, in some ways, become the latest poster child for the future of energy-efficient lighting, it hasn’t discouraged entrepreneurs from tinkering with a few intriguing alternatives that happen to not require any electricity at all.

Earlier this week, I wrote about an algae-powered street lamp, currently being developed by a French biochemist, that absorbs carbon dioxide along with photosynthesized sunlight and, in return, produces oxygen and bio-illumination for streets and parking lots. Well, in the United Kingdom, a businessman named Hamish Scott hit upon a similarly bright idea in creating Starpath, a special luminescent coating for common ground surfaces that collects and stores energy from ambient light during daylight hours and releases a blueish, galactic glow when it gets dark. The multi-layered organic material, which may cut electricity bills, has proven promising enough that city officials in Cambridge have opted to try the technology at Christ’s Pieces park where 1,600 square feet of a pathway were renovated.

What’s remarkable about Starpath is that while the material, a high-grade version of what’s found in glow-in-the-dark toys, can generate reliable illumination for about 16 continuous hours, it also exhibits “smart” sensing qualities that allow it to adjust to varying light conditions, brightening up just enough during the early evenings and going into full effect when the sun is down. Though Scott says that Starpath loses luminosity over time, most observers will still be able see people walking toward them and even make out what the person is wearing. It’s also environmentally friendly and 100 percent recyclable.

“It is quite a cool thing. Until you have seen it, you can’t really comprehend it,” Scott told the Fairfax NZ News in a seperate interview. Naturally, one might wonder if a park with Starpath, as opposed to lamp posts, is safely lit. But, Scott adds, “When you are walking down a pathway you know what is around you. From 80 metres away you could tell if someone had a tie on or was male or female.”

The coating process involves first spraying a polyurethane base mixed with an aggregate comprised of a rocky, sandy mixture. A layer of UV-absorbing material is then spread over the base, followed by a waterproof polyaspartic finish that seals everything in and protects it from harsh elements for as long as 60 years. Scott perfected his formula after spending five years testing various combinations of light-storing particles and other advanced materials on the pavement lining his own driveway.

“I wanted to test it there (his driveway) because I wanted to watch it for wear and tear,” he says. “I wanted to make sure road traffic can go out on it without affecting its overall effectiveness.”

His company, Pro-Teq Surfacing, can add its special self-lighting coating to pathways for 70 British pounds per square meter (or about $10.50 per square foot), but the cost can be reduced if it were a large scale job. And as of now, such a renovation requires specialized equipment and so there isn’t a consumer market product for those who are hoping to do it themselves.

“But we aren’t just illuminating pathways,” Scott adds. “We also repair and reinvigorate them, depending on how bad the damage is. Most jobs can be completed in a matter of hours, and we try not to disrupt people’s day-to-day business.”

The product, however, has its limitations. First of all, it won’t work on anything that’s loose, like pebbled or rocky surfaces, only smooth surfaces such a concrete, tarmac and steel bridges. Scott also reasons that it wouldn’t be considered practical for areas, like busy highways, which would be better served with conventional street lighting. He foresees the technology mostly filling a niche within parks, suburban spots and parts of the developing world that don’t have reliable access to electricity.

Andrea Reiner, Cambridge’s executive councilor for public places, told the Telegraph that if park visitors are pleased with the Starpath technology, the city may consider expanding its use to other regions of the city while also ensuring to “balance any safety benefit against the desire to preserve the historic nature of our open spaces.”

Scott, who doesn’t consider himself a die-hard environmentalist, sees the value of Starpath in very simple terms. “I just thought with this, that instead of making more electricity, we’d try attacking it from the other end and save as much electricity and money as we can,” he says.

About Tuan C. Nguyen
Tuan C. Nguyen

Tuan C. Nguyen is a Silicon Valley-based journalist specializing in technology, health, design and innovation. His work has appeared in ABCNews.com, NBCNews.com, FoxNews.com, CBS' SmartPlanet and LiveScience.

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