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  • 11 Mar 2021 11:03 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Editor’s Notebook: Next Gen Deicers - Snow Magazine (

    For decades, rock salt has been the main tool snow fighters employ to manage and mitigate ice buildup on pavement surfaces. It’s ideal because rock salt is relatively cheap and – with a little heat and moisture – it’s highly effective.

    However, rock salt has been generating headlines lately for its negative impact on the environment. Most notably, rock salt has been linked to rising salinity levels in freshwater bodies, which poses a risk to aquatic inhabitants. As a result, the race is on to find more a next-generation deicer that is environmentally conscious, yet cost-effective. In addition to integrating brine to reduce salt use in ice mitigation practices, researchers and industry innovators have sought more unique alternatives, such as beet juice, fermentation castoffs, and exotic compounds.

    However, scientists now are taking cues from the animal world. Researchers have known insects and spiders native to Alaska create antifreeze proteins that lower the freezing point of water by a few degrees and allows them to survive frigid temps. Similarly, some fish create antifreeze proteins that prohibits their blood from freezing in extreme climates.

    Unfortunately, outside the body these antifreeze proteins break down quickly, making them ineffective and impractical for snow and ice management.  

    However, researchers at the University of Denver recently reported they’re working on a synthetic version of these antifreeze proteins known as polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). According to the researchers, PVA is a simple, inexpensive compound that is nontoxic to humans and aquatic life. In fact, it’s found in everyday personal care products. It also doesn’t degrade quickly, which makes it more practical as a spray-on ice mitigation tool or as a coating to other deicing substance.

    To make it applicable for snow and ice management, though, research must first engineer PVA to be more like the antifreeze proteins utilized in the animals that endure in extremely cold habitats. No timetable was given for when this next generation ice mitigation product will be ready for testing or available to the commercial snow and ice industry.

  • 11 Mar 2021 10:38 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Study finds Toronto rivers and watershed contaminated with road salt — even in summer | The Star

    Road salt applied in wintertime is threatening at least two-thirds of the aquatic life found in the four rivers within the Greater Toronto Area.

    A new University of Toronto study, published Thursday, shows that even during the summer, almost 90 per cent of the 214 sampled sites exceeded the federal chronic exposure guidelines for chloride.

    The United States and Canada, respectively, apply roughly 24.5 million and seven million tonnes of road salt annually. In Ontario, chloride enters water systems primarily through the annual application of three to five million tonnes of road salt, used as an anti-icing method for winter road maintenance, according to the city of Toronto.

    “Our results suggest that even presumed low seasons for chloride show concentrations sufficient to cause significant negative impacts to aquatic communities,” the study concludes.

    Canadian Lauren Lawson, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, and Donald A. Jackson, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at University of Toronto, were lead authors of the study.

    The study was funded by the NSERC Discovery Grant and funding from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and published in FACETS, Canada’s first and only multidisciplinary open access science journal.

    The study looked at Humber River, Don River, Etobicoke Creek, Mimico Creek and their associated tributaries from headwater locations north and northwest of Toronto.

    Almost all sites in Toronto surpassed the chronic threshold for chloride of 120 mg/L during summertime. For the most part, only upstream sites away from the urban areas, such as largely forested regions sampled in the less urbanized upper Humber River, show concentrations below the chronic threshold.

  • 11 Mar 2021 10:37 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    DURING THIS UNUSUALLY snowy year, the rumble of snowplows and salt trucks has become a familiar — and comforting — winter soundtrack across the northern U.S. In southern Vermont, where I live, we received more than 100 inches of snow through February, about twice the typical snowfall for that time of year. Undoubtedly, de-icing salts have prevented numerous accidents on otherwise slick roads.

    Although salt contributes to road safety, it racks up high hidden costs. In the U.S., salt damage to infrastructure and the economy is estimated to total between $19.8 billion and $45 billion annually. That includes damage to roadways, bridges, vehicles, tourism, and property values. For example, salt can leach calcium out of concrete and rust steel rebar, a process sometimes known as “concrete cancer” that rots bridges from the inside with few outward warning signs.

    For all their economic costs, road salts may take an even steeper toll on the environment. As salty runoff infiltrates streams and lakes, it can upset freshwater ecosystems. Authors of a 2017 study estimated that 7,770 North American lakes — about 20 percent of those in the study region — may have elevated chloride concentrations. And this number may be an underestimate, say the authors.

    If trends continue, the study concludes, many of these lakes will be too salty to support life within 50 years. Lakes with roads and parking lots nearby are most at risk; 70 percent of these lakes are likely to have elevated chloride levels, based on the study’s sample.

    Excess salt can damage entire aquatic food chains, including zooplanktonsalamanders and frogsfishshellfish, and aquatic plants. At high concentrations, salt can stunt the growth of some fish, making them more vulnerable to predators. It can tilt male-to-female ratios of amphibian populations out of balance. And it can kill off algae-eating zooplankton, allowing algae to grow unchecked into smelly, goopy, hazardous blooms.

    Even organic additives made from natural substances like beet juice and molasses, used to improve salt’s melting power, can have unintended consequences. One study found that two common additives, GeoMelt and Magic Salt, caused mosquito larvae to mature and hatch earlier than usual.

    Flora Krivak-Tetley, an ecologist at Dartmouth College who co-authored the 2017 study, says that salt concentrations in most lakes have not reached the threshold the Environmental Protection Agency’s deems lethal for aquatic life. But salt can throw an ecosystem out of balance well before that happens, she notes.

    And this is to say nothing of the enormous carbon footprint associated with transporting and distributing the salt, much of which arrives on barges from countries such as Chile and Egypt.

    How, then, can we balance our need for safe roads with our duty to protect the environment?

    If trends continue, the study concludes, many of these lakes will be too salty to support life within 50 years.

    In 2015, the not-for-profit FUND for Lake George, in upstate New York, launched an effort to answer that question. They started by working with towns around Lake George to determine just how much salt they used. Maintenance managers deployed GPS to track trucks’ speed and position, and used sensors to measure how fast salt was being released. This feedback allowed road crews to calibrate their distribution rates, saving money, salt, and effort.

    Next, leaders in the Lake George region experimented with ways to keep the roads clear using less salt. They found it worked well to pretreat roads with salt brine before winter storms. The liquid prevents snow and ice from bonding with the asphalt, making it easier to scrape roads clean. Unlike grains of rock salt, which often bounce onto road shoulders, brine largely adheres to its target.

    Area officials found that, pound for pound, brine was far more efficient than traditional rock salt. They could protect a lane-mile of road with a solution containing under 100 pounds of salt, roughly one third the amount used by rock-salt trucks.

    Last, the towns switched to live-edge plows, which have flexible blades made up of multiple, independently moving sections mounted on springs. These state-of-the-art blades are more thorough than conventional ones. And starting with brine makes the plows even more efficient, says Eric Siy, executive director of The FUND for Lake George. If live-edge snowplows are like razors that hug the curves, brine is like shaving cream.

    The sweeping changes to road care required a culture shift within the towns’ maintenance departments. But black roads and shortened plowing times ultimately convinced road crews near Lake George to embrace sustainable winter management. Over two years of using brine and live-blade plows, these communities cut their salt usage in half, a drop that maintenance officials say can’t be explained by weather variations.

  • 08 Mar 2021 8:02 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Today marks the start of the 2021 World Salt Awareness Week. The effort is designed to help bring awareness of the damaging effect of too much salt on our health, and while the focus has typically been on salt in diet the negative impacts of salt related to poor winter maintenance practice also have a detrimental impact on human health.

    The use of best management practices (BMP's) in winter maintenance has been empirically proven to help with the problem.

    The Smart About Salt Council (SASC), is a not-for-profit organization that has been working transnationally to address the growing challenge of over-use of salt in winter maintenance. SASC offers award-winning training, certification and program verification. Learn more at

  • 05 Mar 2021 3:20 PM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Driving into the Future: When will autonomous cars be ready for Canada? | Driving

    On March 10, Driving is presenting the latest in its series of Driving into the Future virtual panels: When will autonomous cars be ready for Canada? This may come as a surprise but we at Driving are as confused as you are about the future of autonomous automobiles.

    That’s not because self-driving cars are incredibly complicated; rather, it’s the conflicting messages being put forward by automakers, politicians, and industry analysts. On one hand we have reports of Waymo self-driving cars already running around driverless in California. On the other, delays in the commercialization of self-driving cars seem endless.

    Making the matters more confusing for Canadians is our harsh climate, which creates even more challenging needs—the snow, ice, salt and sand that are a Canadian winter—making the production of robotic cars even more problematic.

    That’s why we’re presenting our When will autonomous cars be ready for Canada roundtable. In our discussion, we’ll disseminate the differences in levels of self-driving, from the merely automated driver aids we are familiar with today through the semi-autonomous and all the way to fully-robotic Level V autonomy. We’ll look into the differences in technologies needed to make self-driving work—cameras, radar and even lasers.

    Most of all however, we’ll try and determine how long it will be before the promise of self-driving is fulfilled. Will Canada, again because of its weather, lag behind more temperate climes? Can robots safely navigate a snow-covered road? How can we make these computerized cars more reliable when they’re covered in salt and sand? And, perhaps most importantly, if completely autonomous driving is in our future, will we even be allowed to drive our own cars?

    Helping us answer all those questions is Dr. Ryan Eustice, senior vice-president of Automated Driving at the Toyota Research Institute; Stefanie Bruinsma, University of Waterloo’s industry engagement officer; Paul Rudy, co-founder and CMO of Kyocera SLD Laser; and Raed Kadri, head of Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network.

    Join us on March 10, 11 AM as we explore yet more boundaries in automotive technology. What you learn may not only determine what you’ll drive in the future, but how you’ll be driven.

  • 04 Mar 2021 8:09 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Road salt levels in some local creeks toxic to aquatic life, says riverkeeper | CBC News

    The amount of road salt that people, businesses, and cities are using over the winter is likely too much and is definitely hurting local waterways, according to the Ottawa Riverkeeper.

    The organization began monitoring how much road salt is making its way into local creeks last winter as part of its road salt monitoring pilot project.

    The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment has established federal guidelines around the amount of chloride — which is partly what salt breaks down into when it dissolves in water — in waterbodies.

    Those guidelines state that 120 milligrams per litre leads to chronic, long-term toxicity, while anything above 640 milligrams per litre is considered acutely toxic.

    According to the Ottawa Riverkeeper, researchers found water samples containing chloride amounts five times the acute level.

    "Last year we were seeing levels well into the thousands," said Katy Alambo, a biologist with the Ottawa River Keeper. 

    "We've expanded the program [this year] and we're seeing similar if not higher numbers."

    Not only does chloride take a long time to break down further, it's also toxic to aquatic life such as fish, amphibians, invertebrates and insects.

    "High chloride levels can cause disruptions to their reproduction cycles, their growth cycles," Alambo said. 

    "In cases of species like amphibians who respire through their skin, it can also pose consequences there, too, and keep them from being able to breathe properly."

    You might be using too much salt

    As part of a pilot project that ran between January and March 2020, volunteers monitored five creeks — Pinecrest, Graham, Green, McKay, and Moore creeks — that were close to roads, shopping plazas, residential areas and anywhere else in Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., where high amounts of road salt could be used.

    They measured the water's conductivity at each of those creeks after a large snowfall, rainstorm, thaw, or any event that would lead to more water entering the creeks. 

    The conductivity of water rises the more dissolved ions like chloride there are. If the volunteers measured a certain level of conductivity, they then took a water sample to be analyzed.

    What they found, Alambo said, suggested too much road salt was being used.

    "We definitely understand that salt is important to keeping our roads safe," said Alambo. "One coffee mug full of road salt is pretty much all you need to de-ice one of your standard to two-car driveways."

    Salt is also ineffective at temperatures colder than –10 C, she added.

    Instead of salt, Alambo suggests using sand, gravel, or even cat litter to help provide traction.

    The Ottawa Riverkeeper also plans to approach the City of Ottawa about its salt use, especially as municipal officials are in the midst of reviewing the city's winter maintenance standards.

  • 26 Feb 2021 8:09 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    New Film Documents Lake George Road Salt Reduction - WIT Advisers

    As part of an effort to reduce the use of road salt in the Adirondacks, the FUND For Lake George has released a film to demonstrate how communities in the Lake George Basin have been able to use new technology to save money and protect the environment.

    Efforts to reduce the use of road salt in the Adirondacks have been gaining steam over the last few years.

    In December, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Randy Preston Road Salt Reduction Act. The new law creates a task force and begins a three-year pilot program to reduce salt use while keeping roads safe for driving during cold New York winters.

    Pre-dating the legislation, communities around Lake George entered a voluntary Memorandum of Understanding to reduce road salt use and protect the lake that drives the economy and provides clean drinking water to the region.

    Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky often says that salt levels in Lake George have tripled over the last 40 years – not to mention the impacts on groundwater and streams near roadways treated with salt.

    “When you think about the sodium levels, at the current rate that we’re seeing in the lake, those levels in 20 years – people with sodium-restricted diets, those people will not be able to drink water from the lake,” said Navitsky.

    Navitksy, along with FUND For Lake George Executive Director Eric Siy and consultant Phill Sexton, spoke Wednesday after the online screening of a new half-hour film that documents how the Town of Lake George, the Town of Hague, and Warren County have used new technology to reduce road salt use.

    During the film, which featured interviews with local municipal officials and public works employees, Lake George Highway Superintendent Rob Lanfear Jr., described how using a brine solution instead of traditional road salt, has reduced the need for repeat applications while also preventing roadways from icing over.

    “Some of our roads are different because we have such an elevation range — the higher elevations we may have to plow, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes…we may not have to send a crew out because we pre-treated the roads,” Lanfear says on film.

    The FUND For Lake George hopes that the film will inspire other communities to act in a similar way.

    FUND Executive Director Eric Siy says his organization is working “fist in glove” with the State Department of Transportation on its road salt reduction efforts, and he hopes the private sector will take notice too.

    “This is an all-in, all-out effort. It’s not going to be simply reducing the use on our roads. It’s everything, as stated, from sidewalks…parking lots are a huge contributor,” said Siy.

    Sexton, whose company WIT Advisors worked with the FUND’s Lake George Road Salt Reduction Initiative, said there haven’t been many new roadways put in around Lake George, even though salt levels have risen. He pointed to commercial development.

    “For every lane-mile of road in a commercial setting, you could have 50 lines miles – or in some cases hundreds of lane miles – of parking lot. So it just stands to reason that that’s where a lot of this salt could be coming from,” said Sexton.

    To view the film, The Road Map To Road Salt Reduction: Success Stories From Lake George visit:

  • 15 Feb 2021 8:32 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Why should grass juice become the new road salt (

    This week, 120 million kilograms of salt were sprayed to keep the roads passable. But all this salt dries up trees and animals. That’s why at Broek op Langedijk, the world’s first grass juice manufacturer is working hard on another soluble factor: grass juice.

    The idea of ​​using grass juice – actually, grass juice – against skidding comes from Hillebrand Breuker from Noord-Holland County. He’s been responsible for road maintenance and curbing there for years.

    Salty taste

    “After a suggestion from the Party for Animals, my department was asked to start mowing the“ bee-friendly. ”So not with the bulk mower, which removes everything, but in stages. And we no longer let the mowed grass at the side of the road rot away, But he took it with them. “

    As an experiment, Breukers at some point decided to squeeze some roadside lawn. “I took a sip of juice that came out and thought, hey, this was a salty taste. I told my colleagues about this from the anti-icing conditions, and so the idea was born.”

    Attention from all over Europe

    The world’s first grass juice plant is now located in Broek op Langerdijk: Grass 2Grit. “Thanks to the help of Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands Water Board Nordercoartier, the contractors Van Gelder and Van Bodegum, and great European support,” says Brooker.

    “We are seen from all over Europe, and Canada also cares. Because who does not want to use less salt? We know how harmful it is to nature.” Brooker, among other things, refers to trees along the road, which are scattered with road salt from passing cars. The bark, the tree’s protective layer, is eaten from it and dries up.

    Harmful salt water

    In addition, the brine (road salt mixed with ice) ends up in the soil, causing it to be absorbed by tree roots. This leads to the phenomenon of death. All soil life is poisoned by it. The soil contains thousands of worms, wood lice, fungi and bacteria that are essential for plant growth and prosperity.

    Then there are the birds that eat the same salt water. They get dizzy from it. They also develop kidney problems, which lead to their death. It’s similar to eating six bags of potato chips or a few tablespoons of salt in a row. If we humans did it, we wouldn’t feel comfortable afterward. “The salt that we sprayed this winter disappeared from the surface water in the fall,” says Brooker.

    Haffa grass from every province

    Last year, Breuker did his best to get the plant up and running. “We have eliminated all the teething problems this year. We were able to produce 200 liters. Next year that would be 20,000 liters, and we will make a real contribution to fighting ice in the north of the Netherlands,” he says proudly.

    It is not feasible to produce all of Holland in Broek op Langedijk. Each county has its own roadside lawn and can organize this on their own, Brooker continues. “It would be great if we could use a residual product like grass juice everywhere to replace harmful processes. We all benefit from that.”

    How is grass juice made

    Before the roadside lawn enters the printing press, it is cut into small pieces. A grass press divides the grass into fibers and sap. When the juice comes from a grass press, it can be compared to orange juice with pulp. They are removed at “careful preservation”. Then the sludge is removed in a centrifuge. Then the juice goes to what is called an ultrafiltration machine.

    The juice that comes out of it is almost sterile and contains 3% salts. It relates to the minerals potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, and calcium. It also lowers freezing point, just like the “natural” salt, sodium chloride. Finally, the juice should be slightly salted to 8 percent. Hillbrand Brooker: “We can’t do it without salt. But that’s really a huge profit. Thanks to this grass juice, we can use 30 percent less road salt. And at 100 million kilograms, that really makes a difference.”

  • 12 Feb 2021 3:45 PM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Edmonton to make changes to snow and ice strategy following critical auditor report - Edmonton |

    Edmonton’s auditor identified 12 recommendations to bring the city’s snow and ice strategy back on track after an anonymous letter was mailed to city council outlining concerns with the operation.

    The letter was received in February 2020. In response, council asked the auditor to review snow and ice removal.

    Around five years ago, the city moved roads and transportation into the parks department, and the auditor found there had been more than a dozen leadership, policy and operational changes since then, leading to disorganization.

    Edmonton’s administration said it accepts all of the recommendations and is working to implement them.

    “I don’t love getting audits that show there’s a lot of issues, but I’m sure glad I can get those audits,” explained Ward 1 councillor, Andrew Knack. “Because if you don’t get those audits, you can’t fix your mistakes.”

    The recommendations in the report include things like listening to employee feedback, having clearly defined policy, improving the ways in which resident complaints are managed and communicating more effectively with staff and Edmontonians.

    “Understanding the need to be more in tune with what the public understands and how we communicate that understanding, in terms of what we will do, what we can do and what the resourcing and equipment allow us to do,” explained the manager of parks and roads, Brian Simpson. “It’s an important piece and we do need to get that right.”

    He admitted there was often confusion from residents around snow removal, like when neighbourhood blading would be done, for example.

    “A lot of work has been done in terms of just communicating with the public in terms of when we do certain areas,” Simpson said. “Even the difference between cul-de-sacs and residential. There was a lack of clarity around that and we recognize that.”

    Eight of the auditor’s 12 recommendations are slated to be implemented by the end of this year, hopefully before the snow flies next winter. The remaining four are scheduled to be in place before the end of 2022.

    Knack is optimistic the changes will improve the winter experience, both for employees and residents.

    “The worst thing that can happen is nobody tells you what you’re doing wrong — and then you can’t fix it,” he said. “Here we’ve been told all of the things that are wrong – and some things are good, but most of it was challenges — and now we know and have a clear path to fix it.”

  • 11 Feb 2021 7:20 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Why is road salt problematic and what is the alternative? | World Economic Forum (

    • An alternative to road salts is needed during snowy or freezing weather.
    • Road salt is not only expensive but can also damage roads and have a negative impact on nature.
    • Scientists are working on creating synthetic versions of antifreeze proteins observed in fish, insects and even some plants.

    Many people associate a fresh snowfall with pleasures like hot chocolate and winter sports. But for city dwellers, it can also mean caked-on salt that sticks to shoes, clothing hems and cars. That’s because as soon as the mercury dips below freezing and precipitation is in the forecast, local governments start spreading de-icing salts to keep roads from freezing over.

    These salts are typically a less-refined form of table salt, or sodium chloride, but can also include other compounds, such as magnesium chloride and potassium chloride. They work by lowering the freezing point of water.

    De-icing salts also do extensive damage to autos, infrastructure and the environment. And cities use them in enormous quantities – nearly 20 million tons per year in the U.S. Snowbelt cities in Canada, Europe and Japan also use de-icing salts heavily.

    But new options are in the works. I am a materials scientist seeking solutions for our overly salted sidewalks by analyzing ways in which the natural world deals with ice. Fish, insects and even some plants have learned to adapt to cold climates over hundreds of thousands of years by making their own antifreeze agents to survive subfreezing temperatures. By taking a page from nature, my colleagues and I hope to develop effective but more benign antifreeze compounds.

    Harmful impacts of salt

    As many drivers know too well, road salt reduces cars’ lives by speeding up the rusting process. A 2010 study estimated that the use of de-icing salts costs U.S. drivers US$23.4 billion dollars nationwide yearly in vehicle damage due to corrosion.

    Road salts also damage the surfaces we drive on. They contain chlorine ions – atoms with a negative charge – that alter the chemistry of water and make it more corrosive when it comes in contact with materials like concrete and steel.

    As a result, road salts increase existing strains on aging structures. De-icing salts have contributed to bridge failures and cause cracking and other forms of weathering in highway surfaces.

    De-icing salts have widespread effects in nature too. If you drive along a forested road after a long snowy winter, you may notice that trees next to the road look a little more brown than the others. That’s because road salts displace minerals in soil and groundwater, creating a condition known as physiological drought.

    This means that trees cannot take up water through their roots even if it is freely available in the soil. When natural drought conditions already exist, in such places as Colorado, physiological drought can increase the risk of wildfires by making plants more prone to ignition.

    Streams, rivers and lakes are especially vulnerable to water runoff that contains de-icing salts. Chlorine from the salt can inhibit fish from spawning and reduce dissolved oxygen levels in the water, which harms fish and other aquatic life. Salt-laden runoff can also promote the growth of dangerous cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. Some forms of blue-green algae produce toxins that can sicken humans or animals that consume them in drinking water.

    Natural antifreezes

    An alternative de-icing option should be nontoxic and break down into benign components – but not too quickly, or its effects won’t last. To see why this is important, consider propyplene glycol, which is used to de-ice aircraft.

    Propylene glycol is preferred for this purpose because it is less toxic than the ethylene glycol that keeps your car radiator from freezing up. But propylene glycol’s effects are short-lived, so aircraft typically can wait for only a limited period between de-icing and takeoff. This is also why propylene glycol is rarely sprayed on roadways and surfaces. Furthermore, although it is generally classified as safe for humans, it can still be deadly for aquatic life.

    The Antarctic toothfish swims in the coldest waters on Earth, thanks to natural antifreeze proteins in its tissues.

    What about natural alternatives? Scientists have found insects and spiders in Alaska that create antifreeze proteins in their bodies that lower the freezing point of water by a few degrees. And some fish, like the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni), create antifreeze glycoproteins that prevent the blood in their veins from freezing in the coldest waters on Earth.

    Most of these glycoproteins are delicate structures that break down quickly in the harsh outside world. But my colleagues and I are learning how to make our own antifreeze compounds through imitation. Our first challenge is to learn how the natural versions work so we can re-create them.

    While there’s still much we don’t understand, we are using advanced computer modeling to see how antifreeze proteins interact with water molecules. Other scientists have discovered that fish antifreeze glycoproteins contain two main segments, and that certain sections are more essential than others.

    Specifically, small compounds called hydroxyl groups, which consist of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, do most of the work. These small compounds lock into place with water molecules, like a key in a lock, to prevent ice from forming. They are also part of most critical sections of the proteins that bind to the surface of any developing ice crystals and prevent them from getting bigger.

    Antifreeze proteins produced by (left to right) the ocean pout, winter flounder, yellow mealworm beetle, spruce budworm moth and snow flea. The lighter-blue portions bind to the surface of ice crystals and slow or prevent them from growing.

    Antifreeze proteins produced by (left to right) the ocean pout, winter flounder, yellow mealworm beetle, spruce budworm moth and snow flea.

    Image: Protein Data Bank

    Antifreeze proteins are natural polymers – enormous long molecules consisting of smaller repeating molecules, like links in a chain. Re-creating these compounds is no easy task, but we can create our own synthetic versions in a lab, starting with polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA. This is a simple, inexpensive compound that is nontoxic to humans and aquatic life and is a common ingredient in many everyday personal care products.

    PVA contains the same hydroxyl groups as those found in fish antifreeze proteins. Using a bit of chemical engineering, we can change where those hydroxyls are located in the polymer structure, making it more like the compounds that fish produce. In the future, we may be able to change PVA from an everyday compound into an ice-fighting substance that can be used just about anywhere.

    Because PVA doesn’t degrade too quickly, it has the potential to work on surfaces that need to stay ice-free, such as roads, sidewalks and handrails. Its long chemical structure makes it suitable for shaping and adapting into sprays or coatings. Someday cities may rely in winter on nontoxic spray-on antifreezes that won’t stain your clothes or corrode your car.

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