Can beet juice solve the rust problem from winter road salt?

Can beet juice solve the rust problem from winter road salt?

WELLESLEY, Mass. — A car is one of the most expensive things we own, and it’s being eaten away every winter by road salt.

"Once it gets through the paint to the metal, then it does a lot of damage quick," said Larry Linfield of Don and Wally's Service Center in Norwood. "It's like cancer. when it starts, it starts. It spreads really quick."

But there are wild innovations, from beet juice to bean oil, that could eventually help your car last a few years longer.

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Beet juice on the roads

In Wellesley, they're mixing up a concoction to treat roads that's a lot easier on your car, made from beets. The beets, along with corn oil and soy bean oil, are mixed with a liquid salt-based brine and used on the roads when it snows.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox for us. We can go out and get better results in colder temperatures and we can get quicker results,” said Kevin Collins, the General Foreman of the Wellesley Highway Department.

The first misconception: It's not bright red.

“The beets that you have on the kitchen table are not the same as the sugar beets we’re using out on the roadway,” explained Collins. “The sugar beets are a larger beet, they’re white. So we take the regular brine and add it to this beet/corn oil/soy bean oil mixture at an 80/20 ratio. We’re not going to get away from salt, we’re just trying to use it a little more responsibly.”

Collins says the liquid spray uses a fraction of the amount of salt compared to traditional spreaders, which is better for your car, area wells and taxpayers’ pockets.

The beet juice spread on the roads is brown and sticky to it better adheres to the road. The combination makes less road salt more effective.
The beet juice spread on the roads is brown and sticky to it better adheres to the road. The combination makes less road salt more effective. (Boston 25 News)

“If we can save money, and save time by putting less salt out, it would be better for the environment -- it’s win-win for everybody,” said Collins.

The town of Wellesley is sharing what it’s learning with other Massachusetts towns and cities. Beet mixtures have been used in the Midwest for years. But we can tell you it does have a smell similar to soy sauce and looks like it. It’s light brown and sticky. Collins explains it’s sticky for two reasons: it provides a bonding agent to adhere to the roadway, and it also makes it last on the roadway.

If that sounds like an intriguing alternative to you, you can buy a home compound online to use on your own driveway.

The brown, sticky beet juice isn't the bright red color you might expect because its made with larger, white sugar beets.
The brown, sticky beet juice isn't the bright red color you might expect because its made with larger, white sugar beets. (Boston 25 News)

Welding alternative may reduce corrosion in the future

Car manufacturers are also looking for ways to make the cars of the future rust proof.

The federal government has employed a team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to help them test a new type of welding that reduces corrosion. WPI Professor Adam Powell is the Principal Investigator on the project. He showed Boston 25 News that when different kinds of metals come into contact with one another, it can lead to corrosion. He and his graduate research team are now using a machine that simulates salt wear and tear on metal to study the process, and ways around it.

Specifically, Powell’s team is studying what’s known as “friction stir welding" which seems to make a difference when it comes to avoiding corrosion. The goal is to convince car makers to invest in the process, but a few big questions remain. They’re working on a few hypotheses about what makes friction stir welding more effective.

The Department of Energy Gave WPI a $1.5 million grant to study the process further, in hopes that it will lead to lighter and more fuel-efficient cars, that can also stand-up to a wicked winter. They also need to ensure the advanced lightweight body or car components that would be manufactured using friction stir welding can still last as long as the conventional car -- roughly 15 to 20 years.