A thick, viscous fluid that is made from sugar beets, looks and feels like motor oil and smells a bit like instant coffee is part of the State Highway Administration's plans to keep Maryland roadways free of snow and ice this winter.
The molasses-based substance, known as Ice Bite, will be used in a pilot project in Frederick and Howard counties to test its effectiveness in pre-treating highways before spraying salt.
Highway officials at the agency's annual Snow Show on Monday said the product will be added to salt brine to help it adhere to pavement for a longer period. Officials say Ice Bite, a sugar-free form of beet molasses, will help reduce the amount of salt that scatters when a truck sprays it onto a roadway.
If Ice Bite works as advertised, it could help the state cut back on the amount of salt it uses on its roads. When salt is scattered, it can seep into water tables and aquifers, causing pollution.
SHA spokeswoman Sandra Dobson said the molasses product is "environmentally friendly."
"It helps with our desire to be a greener State Highway Administration," she said.
In addition to the environmental considerations, the state has an economic incentive to cut down on its use of road salt. Dobson said the price of rock salt has recently increased from $55 a ton to $62.
Ice Bite has been used in other states - among them Virginia, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio - for almost 10 years. The state highway agency made an initial purchase of 6,000 gallons at $2.17 a gallon.
According to officials, the molasses derivative can cut down on corrosion of both state salt-spreading equipment and private vehicles. They said that it is a light brown color after it has been diluted by salt brine and that it will not stain road surfaces.
Ice Bite is also believed to make salt and salt brine more effective at colder temperatures. According to its manufacturer, Road Solutions Inc. of Indianapolis, the product is effective at temperatures as low as 25 degrees below zero.
If Ice Bite proves effective, Maryland could expand its use to other jurisdictions in future years, state highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said.
Christopher P. Swan, an ecologist and associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has studied the impact of rising salt levels in streams - frequently attributed to heavy road salt application. He said he's found subtle but potentially significant changes in the development of grey tree frogs, aquatic insects and zooplankton, the microscopic animals in water that feed on algae.
Swan says he thinks using the molasses-based product as a supplement to rock salt would probably help reduce the amount of salt that is getting into area streams.
The beet derivative is unlikely to have as lasting an impact on streams as salt does because it would degrade more quickly, Swan said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Wheeler contributed to this article.