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Is the Thruway New York’s biggest juice bar?

parking lot with a thick layer of ice and snow
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail
Hard pack snow and ice after a winter storm

The winter months can pose a headache for drivers navigating the roads after a snow storm. Plowing can only do so much and too often a slick, hard pack of snow and ice can cover streets making them dangerous to drive.

So how do you get around that? Beet juice!

industrial yellow plow truck with white container for de-icing beet brine liquid
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail
New York State Thruway Authority de-icing truck that spreads up to 2,000 gallons of 'beet brine' on state roads

It’s not used everywhere, but it is catching on. The New York State Thruway Authority is one of several state authorities pre-treating and treating roads with and mixture of beet ‘juice’ and brine water.

No, this is NOT the blood red beet juice we might get at a veggie juice bar; it’s actually a brownish liquid, made in part from extract of the white sugar beet.

Yes the beets that provide 20% of the world’s sugar production are also making our highways safer to drive on. Michael Loftus, acting director for the Albany Thruway Authority says the liquid extract acts as a sort of primer on the roads causing rock salt to be even more effective.

“Prior to a storm event we’ll put the mixture directly down on the road as a liquid application and then it dries. When it starts to snow, we already have product down on the road to treat the ice and the snow that’s come along. We also use it when we spread rock salt onto the road.  It acts to jump start the salt in the melting process and reduce the bounce and the scatter of the salt as it comes out of the spinner and hits the road.”

red and white sign above on and off buttons for bine mixing machine
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail
New York State Thruway Authority sign to activate the machine that mixes the brine water with concentrated 'beet juice'

The mixture they use is 80% salt water or brine and 20% beet ‘juice’ or beet brine.

This environmental discovery of sorts was made in the mid-west 1990. Sugar beets are a popular crop in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Once harvested the beets are processed to extract their sugar creating a concentrated liquid brown juice. A patent for the extracted juice was put up for sale and purchased by the company Road Solutions. The company manufactures and distributes environmentally sound road products to improve the safety of the road surfaces. Once they had the patent they named the product 'Ice Bite'.

Jay Walerstein, Vice President of Sales and Marketing says the product prevents snow and ice from bonding with the pavement. He compares it to eggs in a frying pan.

“If you were making eggs in that old metal skillet, you’d have a real mess trying to clean at the end. But if you were making them in a Teflon-coated pan the eggs would come right out. That’s what Ice Bite does when it ends up on the road. It puts an invisible coating of anti-icing solids on the road that prevent ice and hard packed snow from sticking to the road, so that shovels, snow plows and so forth can easily remove all of the snow and ice leaving a wet road. Even if it’s minus 15 it’s gonna be a wet road on the asphalt that will not freeze. That is a safe to drive on surface.”

It doesn’t just work as a pretreatment, the beet brine mixture also works as a de-icing agent after a storm.

Walerstein says the beet solution has other attractive qualities as well.

“On the road surface, it’s not sticky but it wants to stay on the road because the nature of the cell particles from the sugar beet plant. It stays stuck on the road and they don’t break down. Thousands of cars and run over it and they just don’t break down.”

He says the product will ‘hang on’ to the road surface for as long as four days still melting snow and ice. This eliminates repeated applications of rock salt or brine making it economically attractive.

multi gallon blue and yellow plastic silo containers
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail
New York State Thruway containers of 'beet juice' and beet juice and brine water mix

It’s also good for the environment. Environmental scientists have been documenting an increase in ground water salinity, particularly in the winter months and usually closer to major road ways. They say there is a direct link between road salt and the contaminated ground water, so the less salt needed the better.

Michael Loftus of the Thruway Authority says this is the third year they’ve incorporated beet extract into their winter maintenance program.

According to a press release form the Thruway Authority, this year they expect to use 175,000 tons of rock salt, 230,000 gallons of salt brine and 100,000 gallons of the beet brine mixture.

Sugar Beets, who knew?

small glass jug with white twist top contain dark brown liquid
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail
Small jar sample of the Ice Bite 'beet juice' extract used to de-ice New York State Roads

Incase you've forgotten what sugar beets look like, this short segment from Sesame Street should jog your memory! *WARNING, this song will be stuck in your head all day*

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