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And the ‘beet’ goes on
KDOT uses beet juice to beat highway ice
kdot beet juice pic
A Kansas Department of Transportation truck sprays a brine/beet mix on Thursday, on U.S. 56 between Larned and Pawnee Rock. Crews in that area were spraying bridges and other areas vulnerable to freezing in anticipation of possible ice and snow Friday morning. Beet juice helps brine stick to pavement. - photo by COURTESY PHOTO

The Kansas Department of Transportation has a new way to “beet” Old Man Winter on the state’s highways. KDOT crews, including those here in the Golden Belt, are sometimes treating roads for ice, especially when it is the coldest, with mixture of beet juice and salt brine. 

So, motorists might notice darker trails on the pavement instead of the usual white trails left by the salt alone. The compound, which was applied on U.S. 56 between Larned and Pawnee Rock Thursday, tends to leave a brownish or grayish residue.

“It is unique,” said Jim Frye, said Jim Frye, Topeka-based field maintenance manager/emergency coordinator with KDOT. But, other states have been using it for a long time.

“The properties of beet juice, when mixed with brine, allow the melting agent to be effective at lower temperatures,” said Frye of why beet juice is mixed saltwater applied to melt ice or to slow its formation. “Based on the level of concentration, beet juice mixed with brine can help control ice when it is as cold as around 0 degrees.”

The sugar in the solution lowers the freezing point of the ice, which means when sugar is added, salt will melt ice at a cooler temperature than its typical 15°F limit.

Beet juice also allows brine and salt to adhere to pavement better, he said. On bridges, which tend to get icy, beet juice bonds to the salt crystals in brine and helps the brine stick to a bridge deck longer. 

Another beet-juice benefit, said District Five District Engineer Brent Terstriep is that when beet juice is added, “the combination makes ice-fighting more efficient because crews don’t have to drive out as often to apply brine.” District Five covers south central Kansas, including Barton and Pawnee counties.

“If we do everything right, we don’t have to make that second round with the salt,” Frye said. “What we want to do is reduce the amount of salt we use on our roads and bridges.”

Frye said 1,800 gallons of brine will cover about 36 miles of roadway at a cost of 10 cents per gallon. KDOT mixes that with 10% beet juice, meaning roughly 180 fewer gallons of salt are needed for the same distance.

The price of the beet juice brings the cost to 28 cents per gallon to treat a road surface, Frye said. The savings comes from making fewer trips, as well as cutting the corrosive salt with the more environmentally friendly juice.

In addition, “as moisture on pavement starts to freeze, the juice slows the process so that the liquid remains slushy longer,” Frye said. “That gives crews more time to clear highways before the liquid turns to solid ice.”

One problem with spreading salt or spraying salt brine on a highway is that it will bounce away or scatter with traffic or the wind. “When the beet juice is added to the salt or salt brine, with its sticky texture, it will hold the salt or salt crystals on the highway longer, allowing it to work in our favor,” Frye said. 

KDOT began experimenting with the beet juice it uses now during the winter of 2015 in northwestern Kansas. Since then, KDOT has made beet juice available at more than 20 locations across Kansas.