Cedar Rapids Gazette: University of Iowa Road Salt Expert to 9th-graders--Iowa DOT a World Leader

By Andrew Phillips Cedar Rapids Gazette

The Iowa Department of Transportation is a world leader in some winter road maintenance techniques, a University of Iowa professor told Cedar Rapids ninth-

graders Friday.

Wilfrid Nixon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the university, spoke to five sessions of a science class Friday at Prairie Point Middle School. The students will use what they learned from Nixon to experiment with road salt, taking a sample of the mixture Cedar Rapids uses and breaking it down into its components.

Nixon explained the chemistry and proper use of various road salt mixtures to the students, detailing how road maintenance agencies use salt to keep transportation systems open during winter storms.

Road salt is actually used to prevent snow and ice from sticking to roadways and allow for easier plowing, Nixon said, contrary to common understandings of it.

“We don’t use road salt to melt snow and ice,” he told students. “We can, but it’s incredibly wasteful.”

The Iowa Department of Transportation has mastered the process of using salt brine to prepare roads before a storm, Nixon said, preventing snow from ever sticking in the first place.

Brine or pre-wetted salt can be more effective and more efficient than dry salt, he said, keeping more salt on the roads and using less of it. The Iowa DOT uses more brine and less dry salt than Illinois or Minnesota, he said, and it is “a leader in the world in this regard.”

Nixon said some of his colleagues in Europe are envious of other road-maintenance investments Iowa has made, such as the addition of GPS trackers and cameras to state snow plows.

The implications of winter road maintenance are significant, Nixon told students.

About 7,000 people die in the U.S. every year in winter weather-related crashes, Nixon said. Proper road salt programs that include more than just sand can reduce that number by 85 percent, he added.

And shutting down Iowa roads for even a day, Nixon said, can have economic costs of more than $60 million.

“It’s a huge impact,” Nixon said. “It’s something we have to consider as part of a sustainable approach to winter roads.”

Some ninth-graders interested in engineering ate lunch with Nixon after his presentations and said Nixon showed them the real-world implications of a previously abstract topic.

“It showed me how a small problem really relates to everyone,” said Jonetta Yenter, a Prairie Point student interested in becoming an engineer.

“He gave me insight into being a civil engineer,” said Anthony Pearson, another student. “I really want to be one now.”

Maria Averkamp, one of the students’ science teachers, said Nixon’s talk was helpful for the students who will be working with road salt in class.

“I think it really did move (students’ understanding) to a new level,” Avercamp said. “They actually see the application of it.”