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Australian start-up Imagine Intelligent Materials (Imagine IM) has won $100,000 grant from toll road operator Transurban to develop “smart” roads.

The grant will be used by Imagine IM over a nine-month period to build graphene-based sensors that will be able to be installed under motorways. These will ultimately be able to monitor and self report on traffic movement, road conditions, and eventually even enable energy storage or generation.

For Imagine IM, which develops graphene-based coatings for industrial textiles and fibres, the project is another significant step in the development of large sensors for the Internet of Things, enabling users to extract real-time data from “self-reporting” materials.

Graphene is an atom-thin layer of carbon, first successfully isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004, and has been described as the “world’s first two-dimensional material.”

“At Imagine IM we don’t just talk about the cool things you can do with graphene. We are developing a vertically integrated company that can make graphene, functionalise it, realise applications for it via smart, sensing fibers and textiles, and build the hardware interface devices that enable data to be extracted,” said Imagine IM’s CEO Chris Gilbey.

“The R&D agreement with Transurban is a significant step for Imagine IM, as it will ensure that we understand that market need at a practical level, by working with Australia’s leading motorway business.”

Imagine IM Head of R&D, Dr Phillip Aitchison, said that the project target of making roads smart will initially start with sophisticated pressure sensors that measure vehicle movements.

“It will ultimately become a part of the maintenance system for a road. Our vision is to create structural integrity reporting functionality for every part of the built environment. Beyond that there is enormous potential for energy generation and storage,” he explained.

“Once you have electrical conductivity as a component of infrastructure, you have the ability to develop all kinds of downstream ‘smart’ additional functions. Smart roads will help save energy, making traffic move more efficiently, adding productivity and saving energy.”

The grant was awarded as part of Transurban’s Innovation Grants Program. Two other $100,000 grants were awarded to academic researchers at University of Melbourne and Deakin University.

The University of Melbourne is conducting research into a speed sensor with LED lights, which once attached to the road surface could provide real-time customised signals encouraging speeding drivers to slow down.

Meanwhile, Deakin University is developing a high-energy absorbing overlay made of recycled plastic and textile fibres to cover roadside wire rope barriers, with the aim of reducing injury severity in crashes involving motorcyclists.

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