Science Scoops: Slip-Sliding Away…No More?

Ever been in a car that suddenly hit a patch of ice and slid out of control? Ever feel your body jerk off-balance when you stepped on an ice-covered sidewalk? Scary, isn't it? Well, if a Michigan Tech University (MTU) researcher's got it right, he's going to melt those fears away. That's right. Russ Alger, director of the Institute of Snow Research at MTU's Keweenaw Research Center, is determined to put an end to “treacherous ice” and make winter's slipperiest surfaces safe for planes, people, and automobiles.

The solution, Alger says, is “Anti-Icing Smart Overlays,” a type of limestone that looks like kitty litter. You see, the customary way to deice roads, sidewalks, and runways is to spread salt or other deicing compounds on the slippery surfaces. Although the chemicals work, they are expensive and harmful to the environment; they also can rot car bodies. Salts and other deicing compounds also wash away as the ice melts. This means that the next time it snows, the roads have to be treated again.

Those woes could be over. What Alger proposes to do is stick his special compound onto pavement with epoxy. Once in place, the compound will “soak up” road salts or other deicing chemicals like a sponge (or like kitty litter) and hold them in place for weeks! Alger doesn't expect that all highways will be treated with the special compound right away. Instead, he'd like to see some problem areas treated first, such as bridges, highway intersections, and some icy sidewalks (to prevent car accidents and pedestrian falls).

Another prime application could be airport runways. In fact, Alger is working under a contract from the Federal Aviation Administration to run tests this winter on a service road at Chicago's O'Hare airport, and on a section of a taxiway at Atlantic City airport in New Jersey. But as Alger points out, in the end, some of the greatest benefits could be closer to home. “You could mix up a pail [of the overlay material] and put it on your front walk,” he says. VoilĂ ! No more slip-sliding away!

Vocabulary

  • epoxy: A heat-setting resin characterized by toughness and strong adhesion

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Activity

  1. Traditionally, roads have been deiced with salt. Salt is a compound made up of two elements, sodium and chlorine. What are the chemical symbols for these two elements? What are two properties of each of these elements?
  2. Think of chemicals that we use in daily life. How do these chemicals help us? Think of a specific chemical. What are the elements that make up the chemical? Write a few sentences about what the chemical is, how the chemical is used, and what the benefits of the chemical are.