Outside the Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha, there is a 200-square-foot slab of concrete that appears to be ordinary. Snowflakes begin to descend upon the Nebraskan city's cold ground on a chilly afternoon.
The snow gathers on the grass surrounding the chunk of concrete, initially clinging to the surface. But as time passes and the snow starts to melt, the wedge of concrete exhibits its secret: like guitars, stoves and razors, it turns electric.
Designed by civil engineering Professor Chris Tuan of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the concrete isn't as high-tech as it sounds.
Tuan and his colleagues just added steel shavings and carbon particles into the concrete mixture, applying some electric force.
These ingredients comprise just 20 percent of Tuan's standard concrete mixture, but they charge enough electricity to melt snow and ice in the worst winter storms while still being safe to the touch. Scientists say it's particularly safe to bystanders and commuters.
Just in time, too, as winter storm Jonas dumps more than 30 inches of snow over Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC during the weekend.
The Concrete's Special De-icing Performance
The UNL research team will be demonstrating the special concrete's de-icing performance to the Federal Aviation Administration in a testing phase that will end in March.
If the FAA finds the results satisfying, Tuan said it will consider stepping up the tests by integrating the tech into a tarmac of a major airport in the United States.
"To my surprise, they don't want to use it for the runways," said Tuan.
The professor said the FAA needs the tarmac around the gated areas to be free of snow, because many carts have to be unloaded. Food service, luggage service, fuel service and trash service all have to get into those gated areas, he said.
"They said that if we can heat that kind of tarmac, then there would be (far fewer) weather-related delays," said Tuan. "We're very optimistic."
The Roca Spur Bridge
Tuan and his team have been testing the concrete on a particular bridge that is about 15 miles near Lincoln since 2002.
The state's Department of Roads, together with Tuan's team, transformed the 150-foot Roca Spur Bridge into the world's first bridge to use conductive concrete.
Inserted with 52 slabs of conductive concrete that have de-iced the bridge's surface for 12 years now, the Roca Spur Bridge is an example of the kind of site that Tuan envisions for the special concrete.
The professor said bridges are always the first to freeze up in winter because they're exposed to elements on the top and the bottom. He said it was not cost-effective to build roadways using the conductive concrete, but it can be used at locations where ice or potholes are always present.
The formation of potholes come from the liberal use of de-icing chemicals and salt that corrode concrete, as well as groundwater contamination that has accumulated over time.
The conductive concrete is a more appealing alternative because of its low maintenance and operating cost, Tuan said.
Scientists estimate that the power needed to de-ice the Roca Spur Bridge within a three-day winter storm may cost about $250, which is definitely less than a truckload of chemicals.
Tuan added that the special concrete could also be helpful for high-traffic intersections, driveways, sidewalks and high-exit ramps.