skip to content

Digital Roads of the Future


Roads are currently made with many layers of inert materials, poorly documented and monitored,  far from being sustainable, maintained proactively and serve no additional functionality. We will rethink the structure and composition of road materials to transform them into smart materials aware of their state and properties, documented in Digital Twins, monitored automatically and maintained proactively, able to serve additional functionalities and are low carbon and environmentally responsible. We will address these challenges under the three interconnected high level themes of: Digitisation, Decarbonisation and the Environment.

Digitisation of our roads and pavement materials will enable them to monitor their own health and communicate with their Digital Twin and robotic systems and be guided and optimised by data-driven approaches. Our research to date has included the development of self-sensing materials, with conductive fillers and fibres as well as coatings; the deployment of carbon nanomaterials and graphene; the extensive use of different sensor and sensor devices, including innovative sensors for material health monitoring and early warning signals; the exploitation of digital tools; data capture, interpretation, interrogation and management as well as the development and testing of off-site, prefabrication and 3D printing manufacturing processes.

Decarbonisation of our roads and pavement materials, with their high carbon emissions, will enable the significant reduction in the carbon footprint of highways projects. This will accelerate the efforts towards achieving net zero and deliver net-zero road projects. Our research has focused on the development and testing of low carbon pavement materials (cement, concrete, aggregates, binders, additives, reinforcement); the development of self-healing, self-immunising and self-strengthening materials; smart material use with material reduction, use of recycled materials and maximising the use of waste materials and streams; carbon capture, storage and reuse within pavement materials and the wider road infrastructure as well as the performance of carbon footprint calculations and whole life performance modelling and analyses.

Environmentally responsible roads and pavement materials will enable highway projects to play a central role in minimising negative environmental impacts and enhancing the surrounding environment. Our research has focused on designing pavement materials with added functionality, both technical and environmental, including reduction of run-off, removing pollution from the air and reducing noise; protecting the environment through the use of locally available materials, material reuse and delivering zero waste projects as well as future-proofing through the delivery of climate resilient pavements and life cycle analyses.

Advanced materials have revolutionised many sectors and industries and are the major contributor to product innovations. Our vision is to deliver a similar transformation in pavement materials.

The key smart materials “challenges” are outlined below. 

Nano-inspired Roads: Role of Nanomaterials in the delivery of future roads

Nanomaterials and nanotechnology will play a vital role in delivering future smart, sustainable and resilient roads and pavement materials. For example, graphene-asphalt and graphene-concrete composites were recently demonstrated in full-scale field trials as viable pavement materials for significant enhancement of the life of road surfaces. Potential areas for applicants to consider: exploring the potential for graphene in the delivery of low carbon pavement materials, including concrete, asphalt, fibres and other reinforcement, coatings, and road markings; the development of application of graphene-waste composites in pavements to maximise the use of wastes and recycled materials; the development and deployment of 3D printing with graphene, including concrete with graphene reinforcement for tailored applications; graphene for condition sensing in roads; durability enhancement of pavements with graphene, e.g. resistant to chlorides or enhancing the wear performance. How can we accurately quantify the environmental credentials, carbon reductions, cost savings and longevity enhancement of those materials and products? How can such additives and new materials be better integrated into the standards? There is also scope to explore impacts on a project or scheme level and refine existing life cycle software and commercial carbon calculators.

Industry Sponsor: Balfour Beatty, Versarien

Maximising road life: Smart materials and sensors to extend the life of existing assets

The UK’s strategic road network is valued at more than 128 billion pounds, and it is expected that this amount will increase with the majority of the assets still being in service in 2050. The assets that make up the network are ageing, and it is now acknowledged that the maintenance and repair of the existing assets (as opposed to demolishing and rebuilding) is the most sustainable approach to maintaining its services. Potential areas for applicants to consider include: can smart materials be developed that can significantly enhance the life of existing assets? Can we deploy sensors to assess the current state of pavements? Can sensor data help us make smarter decisions? Can smart materials and sensors be combined to enable the pavement to report its state of health to help with the proactive maintenance of the assets and lengthen their operating life? Can smart materials inform efficient design, whereby we design with less materials and reduce overdesign in the maintenance of assets? Can we use this body of data to model the performance and deterioration of these materials and, ultimately, their whole life performance to inform intervention needs? Can we capitalise on the sizable body of existing data (owned by National Highways and others) to improve our knowledge of the current state of the assets? Can we employ car sensors, e.g. on Royal mail vehicles, to help in this regard? Can we use sensors and data extracted from sensors to eliminate disruptions and enhance traffic flow? Can we integrate data from multiple sources and produce information and knowledge to inform strategic decisions regarding cost, carbon and environmental benefits.

Industry Sponsor: Telent, Galiford Try

Oil-free asphalt for future roads: Sustainable materials for flexible road pavements

Asphalt is mainly composed of bitumen mixed with aggregates of crushed stone. Bitumen is a by-product of crude oil distillation and contributes hugely to emissions and environmental impacts. In a future not reliant on fossil fuels, can we develop asphalts from alternatives to crude oil bitumen that deliver the same or better performance? For example, can asphalts be developed from waste biomass, including cooking oils and sewage? Or can they be developed using biopolymers like lignin or alginate? Can these oil-free asphalts have increased resistance to damage and deterioration? Can the chemistry of these oil-free asphalts be tailored to improve their properties and performance? Can the performance of these oil-free asphalts be improved by adding fibres, and can they self-heal? If commercialised, what will the cost be of these oil-free asphalts? Will they be cheaper than current asphalts? What will their whole life performance be? Can we develop suitable accelerated tests to provide confidence in their longevity and performance? What will the material and resource flow for their production look like? How sustainable will they be? What will their performance in a life cycle analysis look like, and what would their end of life look like? Can we balance the environmental impact, cost, performance and longevity? Can we accelerate their adoption into the standards?

Industry Sponsor: Ringway, Versarien

Zero waste roads: Capitalising on existing pavements and eliminating the mining of natural resources

The construction and maintenance of our highways consume huge volumes of natural resources and generate vast quantities of waste. Can future roads use minimal to zero natural resources, and when we maintain and repair existing roads, can the removed material be used as a quarry for these operations? Can we up-cycle “waste” materials, creating roads of higher quality and value? Potential areas for applicants to consider include: the development of additives or rejuvenators to improve the performance and functionality of recycled materials? Can we do all of this on-site, reducing transport costs? Are we able to do this with the currently available technologies? What technologies will be required in the future? How can we address the barriers to adopting such materials and products? For example, can we develop accelerated ageing tests to test these materials and foster adoption? How can those new materials be better integrated into the standards? Can we also use recycled materials, waste-based materials and locally sourced materials, and if so, how much? What are the most relevant and compatible national waste streams, and where can we simultaneously help solve certain pressing waste and pollution problems? What are the cost, carbon and environmental impacts of such activities and is there a convincing and meaningful business case to make?

Industry Sponsor: Amey, TRL

Carbon Zero Roads: Decarbonisation of road materials

The UK Net Zero Highways document has set a target of net zero for maintenance and construction by 2040. However, current road construction and maintenance projects are far from carbon neutral, and road materials significantly contribute to carbon emissions. Half of all infrastructure carbon is associated with the maintenance and repair of assets. Can suitable low- or ultra-low-carbon road materials be designed, validated and rolled out to contribute to carbon reductions in construction and maintenance? Where within the different road materials and components can we make the quickest and largest impact, and how? What are the opportunities for carbon capture and storage/sequestration within the road materials and the wider road infrastructure network materials and assets? Where are the low-hanging fruit in the decarbonisation of road materials, and do they address capital or operational carbon? Can we continue to reduce the carbon footprint of roads throughout their service life? How do we quantify those benefits in whole-life carbon calculations and life cycle analyses? Can we develop sufficiently accurate carbon calculators? Can lessons be learnt from existing or past projects? What is the best way to balance cost, carbon and longevity? How can we accelerate the validation of new low-carbon materials and products to assist with their implementation into specifications and standards?

Industry Sponsor: Keltbray, Galiford Try

Future-proof roads: Data-driven materials for durable and climate resilient pavements

Roads are usually damaged well within their design life – is it a design or construction issue? This challenge covers understanding material performance and ensuring resilience against future climate- and loading-related actions. How can we design roads with materials that enhance their life span, longevity and durability? Can we design future pavement materials that are adaptive to their evolving performance requirements? How should design specifications be updated for resilience? What will be the most relevant failure criteria to design for in a changing climate? Can we design roads without the need for de-icing? How can we ensure drainage effects on pavement structure are controlled and mitigated? In a changing fleet and increased demand, what are the failure mechanisms for pavements? What assets will be more prone to failure under future traffic composition? We need to understand the modes of failure and the failure mechanisms in different types of assets to help us arrive at the mitigation measures and inform maintenance approaches.

Industry Sponsor: Amey, Telent

Contact for Smart Materials Theme

Potential applicants should contact the smart materials theme lead, Professor Abir Al-Tabbaa (, for any queries regarding these challenges.

More on Smart Materials