Road chemistry: Brine & beets

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — Some roads in South Dakota will be switching to a vegan diet, of sorts, for the remainder of the winter. The South Dakota DOT will be test-driving a new de-icing material that’s made from beets. It’s part of the ever-changing chemistry of how crews treat roads when the weather turns bad.

Workers at the South Dakota DOT shop in Sioux Falls are loading up a gigantic salt shaker.

“It’s fairly cheap to make and it’s very, very effective,” DOT lead highway maintenance worker Curt Theisen said.

This bubbling sodium chloride cauldron supplies DOT trucks with the salt brine they spray onto icy roads ahead of winter storms.

“You dump rock salt in there and you add water and it dilutes the salt down and it comes out salt brine,” Theisen said.

DOT workers can make more than 3,000 gallons of this salt brine an hour, 24-hours a day. Last winter, they produced nearly a million gallons of it.

“As soon as we’re done with a snowstorm, if we use a bunch of brine, we put a guy back here, day and night making brine until we can get us supplied back up, our outlying shops supplied back up,” Theisen said.

Wet-salt is a proven method for de-icing roads, with a better track record than dry salt, which can bounce off the pavement after its applied.

“Primary, it’s used for pre-wetting the salt that’s coming out of the trucks, and that’s something we didn’t do 10-years ago, but it’s thoroughly researched and talking with other states, there’s a lot of benefit in doing that,” DOT Region Engineer Travis Dressen said.

The water also activates the salt so it’s ready to melt the ice as it hits the ground running.

“So as soon as our salt hits the road, it’s already in the melting process and it just speeds it up faster melting off the roads,” Theisen said.

DOT engineers are seeking new ways to improve treating highways while offsetting the rising cost of road salt. So a low-sodium diet is beneficial to all.

Your mom always told you to eat your vegetables when you were growing up. Well, that advice also applies to the menu for South Dakota roads this winter.

“Not a big fan of beets. I don’t even know if I’ve even eaten a beet to be honest with you,” Dressen said.

But DOT engineer Travis Dressen won’t turn up his nose when it comes to serving beets during a winter storm.

“A person almost looks back and thinks why didn’t we think of that 5-10 years ago,” Dressen said.

The DOT has tanks ready to be filled with a product called BEET HEET, which uses the sugar from beets to create a harder and stickier snowmelt.

“And what sugar does is it reduces that freezing point, it lowers that so it doesn’t freeze quite as quick. It’s a stickier product so it tends to adhere to the salt a little bit better residual effect, so when the winter conditions are done, we still get some benefit from that material being able to stick to the road,” Dressen said.

The DOT will be giving BEET HEET a trial run to decide whether it should take root as a permanent de-icer. Through the decades, crews have gone from sand, to salt to wet-salt to scatter onto slick roads. And DOT engineers are always ready for the next breakthrough in treatment, wherever it may lead them.

“I think we need to be open-minded, go out there, try these products, evaluate them, give honest feedback. If it’s something that’s proving beneficial and value to us, then it’s something we need to continue to do,” Dressen said.

Dressen says BEET HEET has shown promising results in states like Minnesota. Right now, the product is on order for South Dakota. Here’s how you’ll know when crews are applying it here: the spray that comes out of the DOT trucks will look darker than the wet-salt they apply now.

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