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How I got there

International Road Federation has awarded our 100% recycling project the Global Road Achievements Award for best research in 2016!

We are honored to be among the truly amazing projects from all around the globe who received the award this year in 
12 categories (list of winners). This is a good opportunity to reflect on behind-the-scenes action that lead me here.

How I got there

After being rejected for a Latvian National scholarship in 2011, out of rage I applied for Fulbright grant from the US government. To my true surprise, they were willing to fund my PhD research but first I had to find someone willing to accept me. From the universities I applied to, prof.Mallick was the most eager to do that. So I packed the suitcases and went to Worcester Polytechnic University in Massachusetts. It turned out to be a life changing adventure.

The beginning was difficult. Prof.Mallick was on a sabbatical leave and I could not settle on a PhD research topic. After a couple of frustrating months, prof.Mallick sent me to NYC to meet Mr. Bob Frank and I was amazed at what I saw. He had developed an asphalt plant that can recycle hot-mix asphalt at a rate of 100%! I had no more questions on what I would like to work on. I just had to get him on board. To my surprise he was very much willing to bet on an guy from a country which most Americans have not even heard of and so we started to work on means to ensure 100% RAP is a quality product.
The road was bumpy and I learned a lot. I had never done research on recycled asphalt, so I had to study the topic from scratch. I also had to learn that not everyone is happy to hear about asphalt recycling: oil refiners, bitumen salesman, companies that own quarries to name a few. At the worlds largest road conference TRB, I learned that my glasses are to week and I realized it the hard way while sweating in front of audience without being able to read my own slides. At some point we learned the value of money since we did not have the equipment that was necessary to do the planned testing. But the struggle was all for the good. The core research team, dedicated students helping in the lab and many external advisers and collaborators kept the project alive. I am truly thankful to all of them. The new professional contacts, friendships, collaboration opportunities and the many encouraging e-mails that I have received after finishing the study truly gave worth to every hour spent in the lab.

Research results

The main objective was to develop understanding on how to design 100% RAP mixtures for ensuring quality mixture. So at first to get a general feel, we tried 12 different rejuvenators with simple tests as summarized in TRR article. The promising results encouraged us to continue with testing of six rejuvenators to determine effects on bitumen rheology and 100% RAP mixture performance. The results (summarized in articles by Construction and Building materials and Materials and Structures) demonstrated that, with adequate mix design we can truly ensure performance that is similar to virgin binder and mixture.

We wanted to understand deeper the mechanisms of rejuvenation and the ways to replicate the successful results every time. So we found practical means to determine optimum dosage of rejuvenator for any RAP source (article) and looked at the bitumen rejuvenation mechanisms using atomic force microscopy and correlated it to the changes in chemical its composition (article).

Finally, we decided to put everything we know about 100% production in one article demonstrating the technology and performance of 100% recycled mixtures in field. On top of that I created a website (http://zaumanis.com) that summarized the entire research findings.

TED talk

I had a feeling we have done something great, but how would people find out about it if we only publish it in road construction journals and discuss in asphalt conferences? For 100% recycling to get into mainstream, government has to know we can save money using it, and environmentally cautious voters have to ask "why are we not recycling more?"

TED talk seemed like a good idea to let them know. But who would let me talk? Participation is invitation-based and not that many people (to put is nicely) have interest to find out more about how asphalt is made... The only two times an average person wonders about asphalt are when asking (1) "why would no one fix these potholes?" and (2) "why can't they fix them at night so I don't have to stand in a traffic jam?" Obviously I would not get invited to talk about this "exciting" topic. But if they do not open the doors, you have to go through the window so I applied for a competition with a grand prize of participation in TED conference. It turned out that if you tell about it with passion, even asphalt can become interesting and I got the chance to tell the world about 100% recycling. See yourself how it did it go.

100% recycling TED talk

Whats next?

Although in several locations 100% recycling is already a reality, there is still a lot of work to be done before 100% recycling becomes a mainstream technology. Understanding binder activation, defining true rejuvenation, ensuring reliable performance testing, and developing robust and environmentally friendly production technologies are just a few of them. I am currently working on ways to design a 100% recycled mixture and improve the production technology in plant. I know many others are doing research on the other topics. I am sure together we will succeed!

P.S. As always I am happy to hear feedback and ideas regarding advancement of recycling! jeckabs@gmail.com