What if, instead putting salt on the roads, we put sugar on them?

This news story comes from Switzerland, and no, it isn’t a premature April Fools prank!  It was published in the French Swiss journal Le Matin on February 14, 2009.

“ ‘Sugaring’ the roads instead of salting them?  This idea comes from the [Swiss] Federal Office of Roads, which is currently testing a new ecological method in the Bernese Oberland.  The sugar in question is not typical granulated sugar, but a residue that is produced during its fabrication. “Liquid sugar is much more adhesive on roads” say residents of Speiz. Sugar can prevent ice from forming and dissolve packed snow?  This is unsurprising to Christophe Ancey, from the hydraulic environmental laboratory called the EPFL. “Impurities lower the point of fusion by thwarting crystals from forming”, he stated.

However, if salt reins the roads, it’s only because of its low cost. In Spiez’s maintenance center, the brown viscous liquid is diluted in water and is effective all the way to -35 degrees centigrade (-31°F).  Unlike grains of salt, which can be carried by the wind, the liquid sugar mix has remarkable staying power, lowering the need for upkeep.  However the sugar mixture was chosen not because of its effectiveness but for ecological reasons. Salt, once ground into the soil attacks the roots of trees, Mr. Ancey confirms: “Plants don’t like the excess [sodium chloride]”.  Fresh water fish are also harmed from salty runoff in nearby streams.  The biodegradable sugar, provided by the British company Safecote, does not cause these problems.

Another advantage: “Sugar is less corrosive than salt, so our teams don’t need to wear gloves and masks” according to Martin Rösti, the head of the project.  The benefits are already visible on the construction tools: Martin Rösti confirms: “Our vehicles are less rusted”.  Safecote claims to reduce corrosion by 82%.  Cost is another argument in favor of the sugar solution: salting costs 180 Swiss Francs (124 euros) per metric ton of salt, delivery included.  In the spring, at the end of the Bernese test, we will know for sure if sugar will replace salt on all highways.  The Federal Office of Roads is waiting for the report from Speiz’s maintenance center, before making a pronouncement.  According to Christophe Annecy, sugar is just as effective as salt.  Another reason for sugar: the diminishing stocks of salt.  Salt shortage is such that smaller roads in the Vaud canton won’t be salted these next few weeks.  Salt is now reserved for the Cantonal highway system.”

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