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New venture hits the road to suck up dust pollution

19 June 2023

An engineering graduate turned entrepreneur is driving a new solution to the environmental problem of dust pollution kicked up on gravel roads.


An artist’s impression of how RoadVac would look.

David Pethybridge, a Master of Engineering Management (MEM) graduate from Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC), is developing RoadVac to tackle this 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 6 million accidents annually worldwide, and 1.5 million premature deaths. In Aotearoa, a Ministry of Health report found that chronic health impacts from dust-related air pollution costs taxpayers nearly $3 million a year.

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

New venture hits the road to suck up dust pollution

David Pethybridge, who won the Impact Award at this year’s University of Canterbury Summer Startup Competition for his new venture RoadVac, is now a finalist in the Food, Fibre & Agritech Challenge.

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.

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,” 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.”

Pethybridge 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.”

When the shortlisted teams go before the judges tonight, Pethybridge isn’t the only one from UC. Other finalists include UC Master of Business Administration (MBA) student Renee De Luca and postgraduate Engineering students Harry Dobbs, Reid Williams and Lachlan Mackay Crawford. De Luca’s enterprise, Rōhi, is a range of women’s wellness products. Dobbs, Williams and Crawford are co-founders of CropGuard, a laser bird deterrent designed to protect ripening crops.

UC Centre for Entrepreneurship Director Gerard Quinn says the FFA Challenge unearths new innovations and accelerates the development of startups with global potential. “The connections made in the FFA Challenge create an opportunity for existing industry players and startups to discover novel ways of tackling problems and adding value to the sector.”

ChristchurchNZ Chief Executive Ali Adams says the organisation is proud to support such a future-focused kaupapa. “The FFA Challenge is where innovators can leverage their ideas and grow skills, knowledge, and connections. Their innovations have the potential to transform the industry and make a positive impact on the planet, as well as contributing to the economic growth of our city.”

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.

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