In a demonstration, a bucket is filled with beet juice at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's Butler, Pa., maintenance facility, Jan. 6, 2014, which is then mixed with road rock salt that is largely ineffective below 16 degrees.
Road crews struggling to keep highways ice-free during this punishing winter have had help from an unusual ally: the sugar beet.
It’s a sweet solution to treacherous winter travel now in use across the country, saving money while reducing the damaging effects of road salt.
Salt works by lowering the freezing temperature of ice. That’s why highway workers spread generous amounts of it on the roads before a winter storm.
But it has been a brutally cold winter in much of the United States - too cold for salt alone to work well.
So in states from Tennessee to North Dakota, workers have been adding beet juice to road salt or brine to bring that freezing temperature down further.
It all started at a potato vodka distillery in Hungary.
“They had noticed that the brook where their wastewater went never froze,” said Rob English, president of Chemical Solutions, which sells a range of de-icing products.
Sugars left over from fermenting the potatoes were doing the trick.
The idea caught on. Soon companies in the U.S. were making deals with major breweries. They wanted the water left over from soaking grains.
This was good deal for the breweries, English added. “They said, ‘Great, somebody wants to buy our wastewater. So, we don’t have to deal with treatment on this stuff anymore.’”
Beet juice - or, more accurately, the molasses left over from refining sugar beets - works on the same principle as the water from fermented potatoes.
Road crews add a bit of the molasses to the saltwater solution they spray on the pavement. Or, they use it in a solution to moisten rock salt before spreading it on roadways.
Besides lowering the freezing temperature, it also helps the salt stick to the road.
“[Plain] salt just hits the ground and bounces around a little bit. Then a big semi comes around and blows some of it off,” said Max Smith, general manager of Smith Grain and Fertilizer, which sells one of the beet juice products. “When you put that molasses-based product on there, it makes it sticky. And it keeps the salt where it needs to be,”
Because it sticks to the road, it does not need to be re-applied as often. And, since it boosts salt’s ice-melting power, municipalities can use less and save money.
Less salt on the roads is a good thing for the environment, too.
“It’s tough on vegetation, it’s tough on fish and wildlife in some places. It’s even been damaging to some trees and yards if you get too much on,” Smith said.
Salt is tough on vehicles, too, especially the trucks that spread it. But it’s less corrosive with a bit of beet juice.
Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri and other states have been using beet products for years. Even Washington, D.C. uses one.
But across the border in Maryland, Department of Transportation officials tried beet juice and were not impressed.
“We weren’t getting a lot of extra benefit from it,” said spokesman David Buck. “So, it’s just something we looked at for a few years and moved on.”
A bit farther north, Pennsylvania is trying it out, and it looks good so far.
“It really does work well below [-9 degrees Celsius], where salt is less effective,” said Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokeswoman Deborah Casadei.
Bitter cold, it seems, is where beet juice really shines.