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Utah scientists work to find better way to illuminate road lines

Posted at 11:01 AM, May 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-18 13:01:02-04

SALT LAKE CITY — It's no secret that when the sun goes down, it gets more difficult to see, especially for drivers on roads across Utah.

"I know it's an issue, I drive down those roads and I can't see the lanes and I'm just guessing," said Jason Nance.

While working on his master's degree at the University of Utah, Nance looked into the paint that the Utah Department of Transportation uses on the roads it maintains, and how he could make it better.

"I brainstormed with my wife and she suggested, 'Why not glow-in-the-dark?'"

Nance has worked alongside his professor, Taylor Sparks, who says the Netherlands also tried a glow-in-the-dark paint.

"It is very, very short-lived," said Sparks.

So Nance and Sparks' goal is to create a long-lasting, weather-resistant glow-in-the-dark paint.

"We're at the point where we're finally ready to put it on the road," said Sparks, the University of Utah's Associate Chair of Material Science Engineering.

When it was time to test their new creation, the group headed to a familiar location: Sparks Motors. Sparks is the older brother of Dave Sparks, the star of the popular "Diesel Brothers" television series.

The scientists spread regular glow-in-the-dark paint in a line next to similar paint that included reflective glass beads. While water can often impact the visibility of all paints, the version with the glass beads is designed to block out the water, but not the light.

Early in the test, the paint glowed brightly. But when the light dimmed, the line did not shine as bright. The paint did pass the durability test, with no sign of deterioration.

"I feel like we're just turning the corner," said Sparks.

Meanwhile, UDOT has tried different ways to make lane lines more visible, including reflective tape. However, the state's weather conditions pose a problem with that solution.

"We have experimented with other things, like markers implanted in the roadway, but with the amount of plowing we do in the State of Utah, they can be problematic," said Robert Miles, UDOTs Director of Traffic and Safety.

UDOT also uses its own version of a paint with glass beads to reflect headlights, but it too has issues with water, which dissipates the light.

Miles, who has been with the department for 20 years, says they are now looking at ceramic beads that reflect better when wet.

"I think it's deceiving how simple the problem appears to be," said Miles. "You think about the size of a plow scraping material off a road, the ice and the snow. It's taking with it, or it's impacting the paint markings as it goes through, so there's a lot of stuff that happens on a roadway, and it's not just as simple as a brand of paint."

UDOT is aware of the new glow paint project at the University of Utah, but have concerns.

"We're hopeful that the team is able to overcome the technological hurdles," Miles said.

The university team shares that hope as they move forward with the project.

"There's still some more testing. Honestly, there's so many things that have to align for this to be used," said Nance.

Later this month, Nance and his team will bring their product to a UDOT-run test that they hope will show off its benefits and see if it can become the next "bright idea" on Utah's roads.