There is a delicious irony in knowing that a 14-year-old from Dollard-des-Ormeaux may have found an amazingly simple remedy to Canada’s perennial pothole problem.
While governments spend millions annually in largely futile attempts to repair our roadways, David Ballas, a Grade 9 student at West Island College, believes he may have come up with a cost-effective solution by mixing chicken feathers with asphalt to form a nearly impermeable surface.
Don’t laugh: The French term for potholes is nids-de-poule, or chicken nests.
Ballas’s discovery took the form of a science project, which recently garnered first prize at his school’s science fair. That honour will allow him to represent WIC next month at the Montreal Regional Science Fair at Concordia University.
Ballas came up with the idea after his mother, Joy Struzer, blew a car tire after hitting a pothole in Dollard. It wasn’t the first time, either.
So Ballas consulted a few chemists, who encouraged him to look for “hydrophobic” materials, a scientific term for water repellent.
Ballas found his answer during an Internet search for waste materials with hydrophobic surfaces.
“The first thing that I found was chicken feathers. Actually, there are 5 million tonnes of them that are wasted every year, just in Quebec. It was a perfect idea.”
However, finding chicken feathers proved to be a task unto itself.
“I didn’t want to get them from a chicken farm that killed chickens until I knew my project actually worked. And it couldn’t be duck feathers, it had to be chicken feathers. So I got them from a cruelty-free farm in the U.S. and paid $11 for a box.”
Next was the all-important testing phase.
“One container had regular asphalt, the other asphalt mixed with two per cent feathers.
“When I tested the regular asphalt, half the water passed through it, which is a lot of water. And later it would freeze up and lift the asphalt, which would make a pothole. The one I made with chicken feathers had almost no water pass through.”
Finding a environmentally sound solution was Ballas’s prime motivation.
“The environmental aspect is the most important part of my project – especially in today’s world. Because I’m 14 years old, I can see how bad it is in the world.”
Melanie Richter, a staffer at WIC, said Ballas’s project – which could soon be patented – hit the mark with the science fair judges and fellow students.
“It was so unusual and made sense,” Richter said. “And students can see how to apply science to real life.”
But are Quebecers ready for Kentucky Fried asphalt?
“I hope so,” said Ballas, who would also like to see his invention applied to new road construction.
But he also has his own theory why no one has discovered a permanent way to prevent potholes.
“It’s partly the government’s fault. Getting more taxes is what they need. On the other hand if there are no more potholes, obviously, the taxpayers save money. And second, contractors are going to have less contracts.”
Hmm, almost sounds like a conspiracy?
“Exactly,” said Ballas.
So, knowing that, will there be genuine interest in his invention?
“I don’t know. Maybe they would listen to it,” he said. “I just think they’re going to let it go because of my age.”