Golly, cheese! A new approach to icy roads

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In Cheesehead Land to our east, officials are getting ready to try clearing ice from Wisconsin roadways with something called cheese brine, a water-salt mixture used in producing mozzarella and other forms of coagulated, compressed and ripened milk curds.

For those worried about continued diversion of our food chain to transportation purposes — corn ethanol and soy diesel fuels, for example — this stuff is spread on pavement only after wearing out its usefulness in cheese-making. Promoters say it’s an alternative to its usual disposal as industrial wastewater. How that stacks up environmentally seems like an open question, since salt runoff from roads degrades water quality, but some kind of salty stuff is needed regardless to improve winter driving safety.

The City of Milwaukee will be testing cheese brine to prewet rock salt during the coming winter. Polk County, in northwest Wisconsin, however, has been using the stuff since 2009 and reportedly has saved thousands of dollars because it comes free from a local cheese-maker.

This isn’t the first application of food-based material to pavement deicing, either. Minnesota road authorities sometimes use byproducts of corn, molasses and sugar beets on winter roads. In general, however, a 2012 research report for the state Department of Transportation graded themsignificantly less effective alone than rock salt, which is deicing’s gold standard both for economy and melting power, at nearly all temperatures. (Hardly anything works well very far below zero.)

Minnesota’s dairy industry is about one-third the size of Wisconsin’s, but it’s still in the nation’s top 10 and boasts many large and small cheese producers. Our road managers would do well to look into a cheesy approach to winter deicing.