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Using solar power to keep runways ice-free


November 16, 2011

The photovoltaic panels and concrete panels (background) being used in the experimental solar-powered runway de-icing system

The photovoltaic panels and concrete panels (background) being used in the experimental solar-powered runway de-icing system

When it comes to keeping airport runways clear of ice, there are several options, including the use of chemical, thermal, electric and microwave technologies. All of these methods can be expensive, as they require either a considerable amount of electricity, or a number of human workers. Engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas, however, are developing a new system that would use the freely-available power of the Sun to keep runways from freezing up.

The research team currently have a two-layered section of runway set up to test their system. The lower layer consists of a single slab of non-conductive concrete, resting on a bed of gravel, and measuring 20 x 24 feet (6.1 x 7.3 meters). On top of that is a second layer of concrete, made up of 12 panels each measuring 4 x 10 feet (1.2 x 3 meters). Ten of those are made from a special concrete that conducts heat, while the other two are made from regular concrete, to act as controls in the study.

A nearby photovoltaic system converts sunlight into energy, stores that energy in batteries, and then provides power to electrodes embedded in the conductive panels. In tests performed so far, the conductive panels have been much quicker to melt ice that was applied to them by researchers.

In general, however, the heat flow across the entire test section has been uneven, with more heat concentrated closer to the power source. According to project leader Ernie Heymsfield, this problem will be addressed by modifying the configuration of the electrodes.

Testing of the University of Arkansas technology will continue throughout this winter.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Very informative post!


Cute idea, but the problem is that when this system is needed the amount of sun light is at lowest and that more or less renders it useless.

Tiainen Arttu

Remove the batteries, they are a waist of space and energy.


Only someone that has never had to deal with snow and ice in a systemic way would think this had any chance of being useful.

Dominic From NASA

re; Dominic From NASA

Granted the thermal ice and snow removal system at DIA (Denver International Airport) can not keep up with a max rate snow storm, but only a fool would say that the system is not useful.


Its got potential, but maybe only with tweaks. Heating water with sunlight is much cheaper and more efficient but you can\'t store the heated water as long as you can electricity in a battery. If it needs to be stand-alone, I\'d go for a combination of the two. If reliable mains power is available, just use solar, sell the power into the grid and buy it back when needed. It would take a lot of juice to keep a runway ice-free. Or use the solar to make a lot of hydrogen through the summer then burn it to heat piped water in the winter.

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