A Civil Engineer Declares Holey War on the City's Mean Streets

updated 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

One day in the spring of 1977, as he was driving home to Queens from Manhattan, Jameel Ahmad was attacked by a pothole. It was the very same pothole, on 108th Street, that he had already seen safely put away weeks before. But there it was again, a repeat offender, back on the street before the ink on the paperwork was dry.

Jameel Ahmad, however, was no pushover for a recidivist pothole. He is chairman of the civil engineering department at Cooper Union college, where they study urban planning and use words like infrastructure. He knew that none of the conventional methods of pothole correction would work. At that moment he decided to become a road scholar.

"New York is very peculiar," says Ahmad, 45, a native of Pakistan and the son of a police officer there. "Even if you start with a brand-new resurfaced road, you'll eventually have potholes because the streets are constantly being dug up to maintain the maze of pipes and cables beneath." The city has traditionally used something called AC-20 to line its potholes. The problem with AC-20 is that it doesn't adhere perfectly to wet pavement. Water gets in the cracks, expands into ice, melts into water, and then the whole thing buckles into the same old rut. It's called the freeze-thaw cycle.

Recruiting three assistants, Ahmad built a section of pavement in his Cooper Union laboratory, then subjected it to the usual abuse of changing temperatures and heavy loads. Various mixtures were tried until at last the team produced a substance that was five to 10 times tougher than AC-20. The product is called CU-31 (the initials stand for Cooper Union), and the City has begun using it in field tests. If it continues to hold up, Ahmad's crew and Cooper Union will share a future paved with gold.

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