Did you know that run-off from road salt can affect soil and water in a similar way as acid rain? According to a study by University of Maine researchers, road salt run-off at concentrations of 220 milligrams per liter can cause 10 percent of a waterway’s species to die within a month.
As it is applied, road salt also bounces off the roads, finding its ways into fields, streams and gutters quite a ways from the road where it was placed, and often causing more and more salt to be spread on that road. Scientists have documented an increase in groundwater salinity in the winter months and particularly in areas that are close to major roadways. In other words, they have made a link between road salt and the contaminated ground water.
As a result of the dangers of road salt and its high cost, many municipalities have looked to more environmentally friendly alternatives for de-icing roads, sidewalks and trails. One of the most promising alternatives is beet juice.
Yes, beet juice. A mixture of beet juice  – made from the lowly sugar beet — and salt is less toxic, less corrosive, and stays put better than salt alone.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation pioneered beet juice as a deicer. The sugar beet industry is big in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota, and researchers were looking for ways to use and/or re-use sugar beet waste when they found the benefits of beet juice as a deicer.
Whereas salt only prevents water from freezing at temperatures of 5 degrees or higher, beet juice lowers the freezing point of water to as low as 20 degrees below zero. Adding beet juice to road salt also significantly lowers the “bounce rate” of salt from about 30 percent to 5 percent. Therefore, far less salt is needed to cover an icy roadway or walkway. Beet juice deicer is also easier on vehicles, pavement, plants, trees and waterways.
Plus, the savings can add up. With the use of the new beet juice product, the Morton Arboretum in suburban Chicago is using nine times less salt, a savings of saving almost $14,000.
K-Tech Specialty Coatings in Indiana has been distributing a product called “Beet Heet,” which is a sugar beet molasses-based product that can increase salt’s capacity to melt ice. Promotional material for the sticky mixture says it stays put on the road with much less runoff or bounce off than salt alone.
Last winter about 175 municipal agencies — most of them in the Midwest — used the product or a similar one. The brine made from beet juice and salt “hangs on” to the road for several days, melting snow and ice and making repeated applications unnecessary.
The New York Thruway Authority, for example, is in its fourth year using a beet extract solution as part of its winter maintenance program. According to a 2015 press release from the Thruway Authority, the agency expected to use 175,000 tons of rock salt, 230,000 gallons of salt brine and 100,000 gallons of the beet brine mixture to keep the roads free of ice.
Now, you may be wondering why you haven’t seen a purplish red hue on the roads during the winter
That is because the beet juice deicer is actually a brown liquid, made partly from extract of the white sugar beet. The brownish mixture does not stain the raids.
For more than a decade, scientists have been experimenting with beet juice and other natural ways to melt ice or to make salt work more effectively. Some of the other products finding their way into road salt mixtures are cheese brine, molasses and potatoes.
With the success of beet juice, the experimentation is sure to continue.
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