This winter, the Citizen’s Tom Spears looks at what makes our coldest season tick. It’s a series we call The Science of Winter, and today we hear from an expert what to do with a truckload of waste beet juice on a snowy day, in case you have one and were wondering.

Each year, the salt trucks in the Niagara Region are sprinkling sticky brown salt on their roads, melting the snow better than plain salt by mixing it with waste from a refinery that turns beets into sugar.

They use the same “beet juice” mixed with salt in Montreal, in British Columbia’s interior, and in Ontario’s Huron County, where Mike Alcock is the civil engineering technician in a system that has worked on country roads for a decade.

First thing’s first: “It’s not purple.”

“It’s kind of brown,” and looks like thin molasses — not surprising given that molasses also comes from sugar beet juice. Mixed with salt, the juice lowers the freezing point of water, which makes ice less likely to form.

Alcock says it’s even better than salt alone.

In spring and fall, when the danger is frost on bare roads causing black ice, workers spray thin stripes of liquid beet juice and salt-water on the asphalt. It sticks to the asphalt and prevents ice from forming.

“We only do that on problem areas (such as) hills, bridges and sheltered areas. It sticks around” and works for days, he said.

In midwinter, they plow the roads then sprinkle coated salt. The chunks of salt have been given a thin coating of beet juice on their way through the conveyor, making them tacky so they stick to the road.

Anyone who has driven behind a highway salter knows the sight of salt bouncing all over, much of it scattering off the road. Alcock says his county saves enough by coating its salt to cover the cost of juice.

“It also gives (the salt) a little bit of a kickstart. Salt doesn’t do anything until a little brine forms” on the surface of the grains, he said. “So if you spray this liquid, your brine forms instantly, as opposed to the salt having to sit around and wait for a little sun to create enough water on it.”

There’s also a side benefit: Sugar beet juice lowers the effective temperature of road salt to around -25 C from about -10 C. The juice also doesn’t make cars rust.

Huron County, west of Stratford, Ont., has easy access to road salt. The stuff comes from the Sifto salt mine in Goderich, which extends under Lake Huron. But it still doesn’t want to spread more salt than is necessary, as salt is bad for lawns, trees and creatures living in streams and rivers.

Beet juice reduces all that, and helps refiners.

“That’s how you make money: selling your product and your waste,” Alcock says.

Smith Fertilizer and Grain of Iowa, which makes a brand called Beet 55, says beet juice reduces the use of salt by 30 per cent.

More beet juice trivia: You can’t smell it in cold weather, but Alcock warns that you may want to be careful about spraying it near homes when spring comes.

When some drips run out of the truck in summer, “It does smell. Kind of malty. It’s not super-offensive. It’s kind of a concentrated, malty, slightly nauseating smell,” like home-brewed beer before the bottling.

He says he hasn’t ever tasted it, and doesn’t plan to.