The Amazing Power of the Beet

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One of the most e-mailed stories at NPR.org is about beets. The root vegetables aren't just for salad anymore — they are also being used for melting snow and ice. Reporter Amanda Rabinowitz at WKSU in Kent, Ohio, explains.

AMANDA RABINOWITZ: As a snowstorm blows through Akron, Ohio, salt rocks sit quietly in the 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.

Onlookers are unsure what to make of the sticky mess. They're even more confused when a city worker tells them.

Mr. JOE BARNES (City Worker): Yeah, this is beet juice.

RABINOWITZ: The juice is extracted sugar beets. And when it's mixed with calcium chloride and salt brine, it melts snow and ice at quarter temperatures, where regular salt is less effective. About 30 miles south of Akron, Campton City worker Joe Barnes gets in his beet juice truck to begin his 12-hour shift clearing roads.

Mr. BARNES: That's the beet juice working right there. Right where these trucks are, there's a natural coating and that's what keep them from bonding to the road.

RABINOWITZ: Barnes is a rugged man with a goatee, who wears a Harley Davidson bandanna 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 the layer right under the ice? It 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 in the streams and groundwater 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 (Director, Public Works Bureau, Akron, Ohio): Some of the salesmen, when they come around and want to sell it 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 scrub 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, it sounds to me like it's - I don't see much improvement over the previous years, to tell you the truth. As you can see, 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 of 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. This persistence on the road, this 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 by tanker trucks that can run $180,000 each. As for people worried about the sticky beet juice staining their cars, it washes right off.

MARTIN: Good to know. Amanda Rabinowitz, with member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio. You can find this story and all the stories you've heard in today's Most by going to our Web site: npr.org/bryantpark.

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