CINCINNATI – A concoction of beet juice and salt that is kinder to concrete and metal is getting mostly favorable reviews from a growing number of states and cities looking for more effective ways to treat ice- and snow-covered roads.
It works by lowering the freezing temperature of the brine that's used to pretreat roads, experts say. And it's made from a waste product that was dumped down the drain before this new use was discovered.
Road crews learned long ago that pretreating highways with brine before a storm helps prevent the accumulation of snow and ice. Then they learned that adding beet juice to the brine could make the treatment effective at lower temperatures.
A commercial product called Geomelt uses the beet juice that's left after sugar has been extracted from sugar beets. The Ohio Department of Transportation is testing it in 11 counties, spokesman Scott Varner said Wednesday.
"Rock salt alone stops melting snow at about 18 degrees; Geomelt goes to 20 below," Varner said.
The department will compare notes with other agencies at the end of the season and assess its effectiveness, Varner said. Officials hope it will cut down on the amount of salt used on highways.
Ohio has used about 42,000 gallons of the beet juice product already in what has been a brutal winter on the state's roads, Varner said. On average, the transportation department uses about 650,000 tons of salt a year, but has used 600,000 tons this season.
Cities from the Northeast through the Midwest say salt supplies are dwindling. Cincinnati is well-stocked but is testing Geomelt.
"We're real excited about it," said Diane Watkins, acting superintendent of traffic and road operations. "We're hoping to know by March 1 under what conditions this is a tool we put in our toolbox to deal with our winter situation."
Watkins said early results indicate that although Geomelt is more expensive than brine alone, the net cost could be about the same because one treatment lasts twice as long.
"If you have to pretreat twice with brine, you've broken even," she said. And reducing the use of salt means less corrosion on equipment and bridges.
Mike Bellovics, president of SNI Solutions of Geneseo, Ill., which makes Geomelt, said the product can reduce salt consumption by 30 percent.
Akron tested the solution last year and liked what it saw.
"Salt seemed to have a longer-lasting effect," said Joe Asher, superintendent of highway maintenance in Akron. "It kept ice from bonding to the road."
Dennis Burkheimer, the winter operations administrator for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said the beet juice mixture met its match in Iowa, where the temperature was 15 degrees below zero early Wednesday and the wind chill was minus 35 degrees.
"We were primarily looking for improved melting; we did not see it," Burkheimer said. "The product has some good features, but not enough that it is where we're going to throw all our money into it. The verdict is still out.
"We've tested a lot of ag(riculture)-based products and we're still looking for that product that is reasonably priced and does everything," he said.
Burkheimer said the Transportation Department is barred from using certain types of salt that lower the freezing point more than sodium chloride.
"There are some positive things," he said. "It helps reduce corrosion on our equipment, and it keeps salt from clumping."
Unfortunately for sugar beet growers, the use of beet juice to treat roads isn't going to increase the demand for sugar beets the way ethanol as fuel increased the demand for corn.
The sugar-depleted beet juice is still just a waste product, according to the Washington-based American Sugar Beet Growers Association.