An engineering graduate turned entrepreneur is driving a new solution to the environmental problem of dust pollution kicked up on gravel roads.
David Pethybridge, a Master of Engineering Management (MEM) graduate from Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC), is developing RoadVac to tackle the global problem.
He has Aotearoa New Zealand’s 55,000 kilometres of gravel roading in its sights – and beyond that, the 13 million kilometres of dusty roads that span the globe. As well as posing significant environmental issues, dust from unsealed roads is estimated to cause six million accidents annually worldwide, and 1.5 million premature deaths.
A Ministry of Health report found that chronic health impacts from dust-related air pollution costs New Zealand taxpayers nearly $3 million a year.
Mr Pethybridge is one of 10 finalists in the Food, Fibre & Agritech (FFA) Challenge, an initiative fostering sector innovation, and tonight he will pitch his concept to the judges at the challenge showcase and awards ceremony in Christchurch during the E Tipu IFAMA World Conference. All participants in the FFA Challenge were given mentoring as part of an eight-week pre-accelerator programme supported by the UC Centre for Entrepreneurship and ChristchurchNZ.
Mr Pethybridge grew up on a farm near Gisborne and saw first-hand the consequences of dust from large trucks on back country roads. Later, as an engineering manager for a large forestry company, he was confronted by the problem again, and began to consider potential solutions.
“When I was trying to quantify the impact of this issue, I read some council websites saying that dust is just a fact of life that comes with rural living. And I thought, ‘Why does it have to be?’” he says.
While current methods for dust mitigation use water or harsh chemicals to bind dust to the road surface, his innovation RoadVac uses neither. Instead, a customised trailer unit moves over the road, agitating and suctioning up dust. The solid particles are separated out, leaving clean air to be emitted. As well as removing the need for intensive inputs of water and harmful chemicals, this process also creates another marketable by-product.
“RoadVac is designed to remove the problematic particles that can be inhaled, in an environmentally friendly way,” Mr Pethybridge says.
“Then you’re left with fine particles that can be mixed into concrete for construction, or in some cases, used in asphalt.”
This process could also help to conserve another valuable resource currently used to make tarseal.
“It would remove the need to crush glass into small particles for use in roading surfaces – in itself a resource intense process – and replace that with a natural readymade,” he said.
He is developing a prototype RoadVac and aims to have a working model ready to hit the road next year. He says the coaching he received from industry mentors during the FFA Challenge was invaluable, helping him develop skills such as pitching and networking.
“The connections you make with people in the industry are so beneficial. And seeing all the other projects taking shape was really inspiring too.”
The FFA Challenge is the first of seven Validator programmes to be delivered by the UC Centre for Entrepreneurship and UC Business School, in collaboration with ChristchurchNZ. Aimed at fostering innovation in key economic sectors, the programmes are open to all students, researchers and professionals living in New Zealand.