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Fruits And Veggies May Help Keep Icy Roads Healthy, Too

Courtesy of Washington State University
Xianming Shi first thought of using biotechnology to derive de-icer additives out of agricultural waste materials several years ago when tasked by the Alaska Dept. of Transportation to develop locally sourced and performance-enhanced brine formulation.

It's no secret that road salt is not very sustainable. So, states like Ohio are looking for greener alternatives. It is using so-called "BEET HEET," a de-icer made with the vegetable.  A Washington State University professor is proving grape extract and other agricultural waste can be used. Research shows it melts ice faster and causes significantly less damage to concrete and asphalt than traditional methods.

Xianming Shi first began looking to locally sourced plants as natural de-icers because of a salt shortage in Alaska. The Washington State University project snowballed into a cornucopia of sustainable bi-products of agricultural waste.

He's used Kentucky Bluegrass, peonies, dandelions, grapes, cherries, apples and more to treat roadways.  Soon his ongoing study will move from the lab to larger studies in Washington, California and New York.

The agriculture waste would still be mixed with salt. "But what we're doing is introducing 20% less salt to the environment while boosting the performance of salt brine while at the same time minimizing the potential risk to water bodies," says Shi.

Credit Courtesy of University of Washington / WSU
Xianming Shi.

In the lab, Shi degrades and ferments grapes. That takes about two weeks. When the product is used on a larger scale, he says he will find ways to reduce the lab time. Shi has a lot of interest in the project, especially as the cost of road repair is skyrocketing to an estimated $5 billion a year in the U.S.

States have some tough choices as their budgets shrink. Salt is cheap and agriculture waste would cost 80% more.  

In 2018, the Ohio House passed a bill allowing another option to treat roads: a byproduct from oil and gas drilling. In this article by WOSU, the Sierra Club expressed concern. The bill eventually died in the Senate. The product, AquaSalina, reportedly contains radioactive materials.

Shi is slow to criticize states. "They are facing very tough situations because there are always funding constraints," he says. "Agencies tend to have to buy the cheaper products but in the long run the communities are actually paying in hidden costs," he says.

Shi's research on agricultural waste is published in the December issue of the Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering.