Beets Part of New Recipe to Treat Icy Roads

More U.S. cities are starting to use a mixture that includes sugar beet juice to treat icy roads. The mixture is less corrosive than salt to cars, equipment, roads and the environment. Some say the beet solution is expected to phase out traditional salt-spreading trucks in the next decade.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This morning, we can tell you a new use for beets, a vegetable often served hot or cold or even pickled. Now it can be served with ice. It turns out that sugar beets are a wonder root for melting snow and ice, and that is how more cities across the country are serving them up.

Amanda Rabinowitz of member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio has more.

AMANDA RABINOWITZ: As a snow storm blows through Akron, Ohio, salt trucks sit quietly in a city garage. Instead, large tanker trucks like this one coat the freshly snow-covered streets with a thick brown bubbly liquid that looks like watered down maple syrup and smells sweet enough to eat.

(Soundbite of machine sounds)

RABINOWITZ: Onlookers aren't sure what to make of the sticky mess. They're even more confused when a city worker tells them.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, this is beet juice.

RABINOWITZ: The juice is extracted from sugar beets. And when it's mixed with calcium chloride and soap rind, it melts snow and ice at colder temperatures, where regular salt is less effective.

About 30 miles south of Akron, Canton city worker Joe Barnes gets in his beet juice truck to begin his 12-hour shift clearing roads.

Mr. JOE BARNES (City worker, Canton, Ohio): That's the beet juice working right there. Right where these tracks are, there's an actual coating, and that's what keeps it from bonding to the roads.

RABINOWITZ: Barnes is a rugged man with a goatee who wears a Harley Davidson bandana and sunglasses on top of his head. Standing along the road in a fluorescent yellow safety vest, he kicks a sheet of ice where he just spread the beet juice.

Mr. BARNES: I guarantee if you take a temperature of that ground it's probably 20 degrees. But see how it keeps a layer right under the ice and keeps the ice from bonding to it? That's how this works.

RABINOWITZ: The solution is also much easier on cars, roads and the environment. It reduces the amount of salt runoff into streams and ground water because it helps the sodium chloride stick to the road.

Akron's Public Works director Paul Barnett says adding 10 percent beet juice to a liquid salt solution purifies the deicing process.

Mr. PAUL BARNETT (Public Works director, Akron): Some of the salesmen, when they come around and want to sell it to you, they'll actually drink a sample of it. It is biodegradable, nontoxic - it's basically vegetable juice is what it is.

RABINOWITZ: But don't expect cities to scrap salt anytime soon. One gallon of beet juice costs $2.60, compared to $.04 for a gallon of rock salt.

Akron resident William Ellison watches the beet juice tanker pass as he shovels his driveway. He's skeptical of the solution.

Mr. WILLIAM ELLISON: Well, from the price that I understand that it's going for, it sounds to me like it's - I don't see much improvement over the previous years to tell you truth. As you can see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLISON: The streets remain the same, as far as I can tell.

RABINOWITZ: But experts insist that liquid deicing is the future. Wilfrid Nixon, a University of Iowa civil engineering professor who has studied snow and ice removal methods for 20 years, says it's the best approach out there now.

Professor WILFRID NIXON (Civil engineering, University of Iowa): What it gives you operationally is something that is valued by the operators and by the agencies that have to keep the roads clear. There's persistence on the road. There's reduction of corrosion. These are real benefits. And because of that, I expect we're going to see more and more usage of it.

RABINOWITZ: But it doesn't come without another cost. Using only the liquid solution would require that cities scrap entire fleets of salt trucks and buy tanker trucks that can run $180,000 each. As for people worried about the sticky beet juice staining their cars, it washes right off.

For NPR News, I'm Amada Rabinowitz in Kent, Ohio.

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