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Art meets infrastructure: lighting the way ahead

Recently a 500 metre stretch of road in Holland received the kind of attention unheard of for highways. But this is not an ordinary bit of road, but a glow in the dark road.

There’s something about glow in the dark that really encapsulates a sci-fi, futuristic vision. But the developers of this pilot say this is not just a gimmick to make motorists feel like they’re playing a starring role in the film Tron, but aimed at allowing authorities to switch off conventional lighting while retaining necessary safety. The road markings soak up sunlight during the day to release the energy when it's needed later on. Artist Daan Roosegaarde, who has teamed up with civil engineers for the project, explains:

The government is shutting down streetlights at night to save money, energy is becoming much more important than we could have imagined 50 years ago. This road is about safety and envisaging a more self-sustainable and more interactive world."

It does not look like this approach is going to sweep the world’s highways just yet, though. Quite rightly, the benefits need to be scientifically weighed up against considerable cost, as Loughborough University’s Pete Thomas contests:

If we put this technology on all unlit roads that would be a lot of kilometres, and it would be a big investment. So if safety improvement is the target then we need hard evidence about how this compares to what we already have and to back-up any safety claims."

As well as the safety aspects, the energy efficiency benefits of this approach will also need to be weighed up to ensure sensible payback on investment.

It’s unlikely to be an idea that goes away and applications of glow in the dark technology could be broader.  A similar concept is out there for pedestrians rather than vehicles. Starpath is a spray-on alternative to conventional lighting of pathways in places like municipal parks - with a more human kind of safety in mind.

A small trial in Cambridge has been taken on so far, though the product’s makers concede that in areas with higher risk of crime, glow in the dark paths may be a way reduce overhead lighting, rather than do away with it altogether. Here LEDs might have a role to play; our trial in social housing communal areas providing convincing evidence that quality, well-installed LEDs increase people's sense of safety, while making essential energy savings.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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