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Filling Up Potholes With Silly Putty Instead Of Asphalt

Using some unique properties of what’s essentially the children’s toy, students in Cleveland found a way to vastly increase the speed at which the city can make its streets more driveable.

Cities are finally catching on to the idea that technology can solve problems large and small. Boston’s Street Bump app, which uses smartphone accelerometers and GPS to automatically report potholes to the city, is a prime example. But real-world challenges remain. Once the city finds potholes, it has to go through the laborious process of filling them in with asphalt—a messy endeavor that requires specialized crews. Students at Case Western Reserve University have come up with a way to make that process easier: silly putty.

The students, who took first prize in a contest sponsored by French materials company Saint-Gobain, came up with a batter made out of corn starch and water that slithers like liquid when poured into potholes, but becomes solid when a car pushes on it. The reason: the mixture is a non-Newtonian fluid. That means the resistance of the fluid varies depending on the force applied. Other non-Newtonian fluids include blood, ketchup, and chilled caramel topping.

The powdered mixture is stored in waterproof bags, and when city workers (or anyone else) wants to fill up a pothole, all they have to do is add water, close the bag, and drop it in.

So far, the students have tested the mix on Cleveland’s potholes. The verdict: It works after a week of having lots of cars drive over it. That’s not enough to determine whether the mix can hold up in the long term, or whether it could survive harsh weather conditions. The bags are also expensive—maybe even more expensive than asphalt. But the students contend that they can be reused, so ultimately they save money. At the very least, it’s a quick fix for an annoying problem.

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