Potholes and physics

Published on March 3, 2014

You’re driving down the road when a pothole — a crater, more like — comes out of nowhere.
We’ve all been there. If you’re a driver in Newfoundland, it’s more or less a rite of spring.

There’s a split second realization, an attempted swerve, then an inevitable bang as your tire dips into the hole. If you’re lucky, the car keeps rolling. If not, it could mean busted tires, damaged rims or broken springs.

Vehicles already have a rough time enduring Newfoundland winters given the road salt, snow, black ice and sleet the season throws at them. If cars aren’t slipping off into the ditch or covered in ice, there’s a good chance the dampness and the salt has them rusting out from within.

But add potholes to the list of perennial irritations affecting Newfoundland drivers and you’ve got yourself a veritable toxic soup of driving nuisances — hours of call-in fodder for Paddy Daly to moderate on VOCM’s Open Line (at least someone benefits).

In some areas of the province, potholes are so numerous they’re affecting ambulance services. In a story published last week in The Telegram, paramedics deplored the highway conditions on Route 90, particularly on the section of highway between Gaskiers and St. Joseph’s, where the road is so riddled with potholes ambulance cardiac monitors become practically useless.

And the trouble with potholes is they’re just as much a pain to fix as they are to drive over.

When a soft spot or a crack develops in the pavement and moisture gets in, potholes appear quickly and in multitude. But once temporarily patched — construction crews can’t pave until the summer — there’s nothing to say they won’t open up again before the winter wetness and slush are gone. Quite often, they do.

However, because the holes can’t be left alone for the rest of the winter, governments are forced to pour money into temporary fixes while road workers keep patching the potholes with delicate, hot asphalt Band-Aids.

It’s a costly and a largely ineffective process. And it makes you wonder whether there’s a better way.

According to Popular Science Magazine, in 2012, a team of students at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, Ohio, developed a new strategy for temporary pothole patching that could have the potential to save municipal money as well as headaches for drivers.

Rather than using asphalt to patch potholes, the students developed a non-Newtonian fluid pothole filler to act as a temporary remedy. Non-Newtonian fluids respond to forces applied to them, oozing under certain conditions but hardening under others.

The team placed bags of the non-Newtonian fluid they developed in potholes, covering them with black tape to avoid motorists mistaking them for obstacles. When cars drove over the bags, the shear-thickening fluid stiffened, effectively patching the holes.

The idea is a win-win. It’s cost-effective, easily implemented and buys municipalities time while they wait for weather conditions to improve.

Not only does it have the potential to be a quick fix for road workers waiting for better condition to make long-lasting repairs, if effective, the non-Newtonian fluid invention could also be a money-saving exercise for governments, avoiding the necessity of two-time repairs for potholes.

The CWRU non-Newtonian fluid prototype needn’t necessarily be the method implemented by Newfoundland governments, but it does demonstrate the potential for how the current system by which road repairs are completed in the province could be improved by altering roadwork methods.

Fixing the province’s crater-perforated roads is becoming an absolute cash cow for governments and often, the quick fixes, employed in the middle of a wet and snowy time of year, are more of a hindrance than a help, costing money but accomplishing little.

Especially for an issue as pervasive and problematic as potholes, why not start looking outside the box for better, more cost-effective solutions?

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.