New 'retroreflective' material can make traffic controls more visible

Aug 19, 2019

The solution for a lot of traffic problems may be colors, lots of different colors.

Optics experts at the University at Buffalo have been working with scientists from Fudan University in China on a material that can be taped to most surfaces, like streets or highway signs.

Credit University at Buffalo

As light moves across the tape, it can change colors due to very tiny polymer spheres in the material. The bright colors of this tape might catch your eyes and make you pay attention to traffic controls.

"When they introduce and assemble these microspheres, the optical properties of these materials will be very unique," said UB Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Qiaoqiang Gan. "So when you illuminate it at different angles, you can see different colors."

Gan said the material is much better than standard highway paint, which gradually wears away.

"It's different from the regular painting, but as long as you can protect this kind of material, they should last long since the color is not from a pigment," he said. "The color is from the structure."

UB and Fudan University hold a joint patent on the material, which Gan said is inexpensive. One problem researchers have not figured out is making the tape in large enough quantities for traffic use. Gan is looking for resources to figure out how to do large-scale manufacturing, perhaps a commercial collaboration with an existing manufacturer.

Someday, if you drive down Niagara Falls Boulevard and the road starts talking to you in colors, they have figured it out.