Undergrads At Case Western Build A Better Pothole Patch, Score One For Midwest Innovation

Credit: flickr user _chrisUK

Innovation is a tricky thing to track. Everyone talks about it, but it’s almost impossible to predict where it will happen, or what it will be. But you know it when you see it.

And so it is with a new invention out of Case Western University. A group of five undergraduate students at the Cleveland school have come up with a potentially brilliant solution to a nagging problem. They’ve built a better pothole patch.

They’ve done it with something called a non-Newtonian fluid. Without getting too technical, a non-Newtonian fluid is a material that acts like a liquid in some situations, and a solid in others – like the ketchup that stays stubbornly stiff when you shake the bottle, but pours out evenly when you coax it with a butter knife.

Another example is a mixture of cornstarch and water, which appears to be a liquid, but acts like a solid if you run across it. If you’ve never seen how this works, it’s pretty incredible.

The Case Western students took this principle, and applied it to potholes.

They’ve put a mixture of their own non-Newtonian fluid in a Kevlar-like bag, and dropped it into a few potholes around Cleveland to test it out. When a car drives quickly over the bag, it reacts as a solid.

It’s meant to be a temporary fix. But still, it’s pretty impressive:

The students have already won a $9,000 prize to develop the idea, and other investors are interested. And Cleveland’s service director told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he’d like to meet with the students.

Inventions like this are the reason you hear so many people involved in economic development talk about innovation. If the idea works, it could be a successful business that lowers costs for cities and makes driving safer. No one could have predicted that a group of 20 year olds working on a class project in Cleveland would be the ones to solve this kind of problem.

But when innovation is part of the culture, when there are places and people that encourage the pursuit of new ideas, new ideas will form. The more that happens, the more likely it is that innovation will strike.

Where will it strike next?

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