Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

The Innovators: Paved With Good Intentions

Meet Yellowknife's innovators: in the first of a series, we talk with Chris Hunt, a hockey enthusiast whose road-building discovery may help fight global warming.

Who’s the inventor?

If you’ve ever strapped on skates and picked up a hockey stick in this town, chances are you’ve sent a puck or two flying in Chris Hunt’s direction. The businessman and inventor from Pond Inlet is something like Yellowknife’s official goalie, playing around 200 games a year for every team in town. His other claim to fame is being one of a select group of Yellowknifers (three by his count) to have secured a U.S. patent for an invention — one which he says has the potential to revolutionize road construction and help combat global warming.

What are his inventing credentials?

Hunt has no formal engineering training; he entered the asphalt industry somewhat by accident after selling an internet domain name to an asphalt company in Florida about five or six years ago. He hit it off with the inventors of EZ Street Asphalt, which produces asphalt that can be laid in cold weather, and became the Canadian supplier for the product. Brainstorming how to improve the product, he began experimenting in a lab in Kam Lake, and after about six months came up with a UV-reflective asphalt additive which he patented in 2014.

“I work with a lot of engineers across the country,” says Hunt, “and they always say, ‘why did you come up with this? You’re not even an engineer!’”

“Some of them say that’s probably part of the reason why. There was literally no question that seemed too silly to me, why this? why not this?”

What’s the invention?

Remember hot summer days as a kid, running barefoot on black asphalt? Turns out, quelle surprise, that asphalt’s sweltering temperature isn’t only hard on pattering little feet; as asphalt bakes in the sun, the oil holding it together heats way up, causing the road building material to deteriorate over time.

So what if you could make a type of asphalt that doesn’t heat up? Well, not only would roads live longer, they’d also cease acting as giant atmospheric heaters driving up global temperatures in the warm summer months (or so the line of thinking behind Hunt’s UV reflective asphalt goes).   

Hunt’s invention isn’t exactly a new type of asphalt. It’s a new type of additive to replace the black oil that typically holds asphalt together. The concoction, says Hunt, is made mostly of natural minerals which reflect UV rays without heating up — titanium dioxide, which is used in sunscreen, being the most prominent in the mix. It can be used in any type of asphalt and dyed any colour. Yellow roads in Yellowknife, anyone?

Hunt’s invention is a new type of additive to replace the classic black oil that holds asphalt together

Why do we need it?

From a short-to-medium-term economic perspective, the invention has the potential to save a lot of money on road repairs. This is especially true in our Northern context, where colder roads wouldn’t melt the permafrost lying underneath.

“One professor was joking, ‘Maybe you’ve created forever asphalt.’ In other words, what’s underneath the road will fall apart before the asphalt does,” says Hunt.

The invention also has the potential to have an even larger impact when it comes to climate change. In 2009, then-U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu suggested, “if you take all the buildings and make their roofs white and if you make the pavement more of a concrete type of colour rather than a black type of colour, and you do this uniformly… it’s the equivalent of reducing the carbon emissions due to all the cars on the road for 11 years.”

“It’s extremely dramatic,” says Hunt, of the potential for his own product. “A municipality or a city could, theoretically get an annual or one-time payment for all the carbon they’re offsetting” by replacing black asphalt with the UV reflective kind.  

What’s next?

Since securing a U.S. patent in the summer of 2014, a 400 metre strip of Hunt’s reflective asphalt has been installed in Coquitlam, B.C. as a test case. His next plan: breaking into the California market, where, according to Hunt, the state has mandated that lower-heat road building materials must be phased in in the coming years.

That’s the long-game, in any case — although Hunt adds, “we’re in no rush, we’re small, we’re nimble and we want to have fun.”

And for him, fun is both professional and personal: “I could have moved a long time ago. We do a lot more business in the south than I do up here…  [but] even if we’re doing business in California, I want to live here, I want to play 200 games of hockey a year. Can’t do that in California.”