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Scientists Are Melting Road Ice with Vodka and Beet Juice

The government dumps millions of tons of salt on roads each year to make them safe for travel. But soon, they may be turning to vodka and borscht to help our highways—and the environment.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
November 30, 2014, 3:00pm
Photo via Flickr user caribb

This we know: alcohol isn't just for drinking. It's also for disinfecting Civil War wounds, and luring slugs and fruit flies to their deaths. But as winter sets in and we start hoarding our hibernation materials (leaning heavily on the fixings for mulled wine and hot toddies), it might be interesting to note that there is a surprising, winter-centric usage for Russia's preferred means of drinking away the subzero blues: vodka, which doubles as a substitute for road salt.

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If you live in an area of the country that finds its roads intermittently (or frequently) blanketed in snow, you've surely seen the trucks and workers that sprinkle coarse ice out to dry out and add friction to the pavement. Road salt is identical to table salt, otherwise known as granular sodium chloride. This practice actually started in the late 1930s, with about 5,000 tons of salt spread on roads each year, but has since increased to a whopping 10 to 20 million tons of salt each winter—a huge amount of which seeps into groundwater and has a worrisome impact on the salinity of our drinking water.

Because of the negative environmental effects of throwing millions of tons of salt all over the road and subsequently allowing them to impact our potable bodies of water, some environmental groups—such as the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies—have explored alternatives in recent years, though most would increase cost and have other potential drawbacks. Sand, for example, is a cheap option that provides some tire grip, but results in sedimentation and doesn't actually thaw layers of ice. Chemical solutions can be expensive, and just as dangerous for local ecosystems.

But Xianming Shi, a researcher at Washington State University, is currently in the process of revolutionizing "greener" alternatives to road ice made with leftover barley residue from vodka distilleries—a process inspired by recent success in Alaska using the stuff. In addition to being more environmentally friendly than salt alone, the by-product, though it is still intended to be blended with salt, makes use of waste that would otherwise be thrown out by vodka producers. WSU researchers are also exploring whether other alcohol manufacturers, such as wineries, could also produce a usable substance with similar applications.

Scientists and road workers are also currently testing beet and tomato juice as potential de-icers in Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee. Beet juice is created in excess in the process of producing beet sugar, and is less corrosive to cars, trucks, pavement, and guard rails than rock salt. Beet juice freezes at a lower temperature than salt brine alone, and has adhesive properties that keep it clinging to the road even in heavy precipitation. In New Jersey, pickle brine is being explored as a de-icer, and in Wisconsin, highway officials are looking into brines made from the state's most well-known export: cheese.

The US government spends a whopping $2.3 billion dollars each year just to remove snow and ice from roadways; in doing so, the least it can strive for is a lower level of environmental harm.

But if doing so also entails making use of the compost bin, then so be it. Let our roads be paved in borscht and vodka, and safer for it.