|Cargill Licenses MTU Invention
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|FEBRUARY 14, 2005 -- Last year, Russ Alger's pavement coating gave Wisconsin's icy Wolf River Bridge a rare accident-free winter.|
Now, licensing agreement with corporate partner Cargill in hand, Alger and his team from the Keweenaw Research Center are expanding the test program to other Snow Belt bridges. Cargill is marketing the coating under the brand name SmartLane, and if all goes well, it could be de-icing trouble spots all across the U.S.
Here's how it works. SmartLane, a blend of epoxy and aggregate, is applied on top of the road surface about half an inch thick. Come winter, it soaks up the de-icing chemical spread by road crews. When bad weather hits, it slowly releases the chemical and prevents frost and keeps freezing rain and snow from sticking to the roadway. Not only is the chemical there when you need it, making for a safer driving surface, it also saves road maintenance dollars and helps protect the environment. Less salt ends up on the shoulder and in waterways.
One of the first test sites is on northern Wisconsin's remote Highway 8, on the treacherous Wolf River Bridge. Last winter, salt trucks applied chemicals five times, fewer than half the average amount. But unlike in years past, no vehicles slid out of control and crashed into the guard rails.
Under the licensing agreement, Cargill, which manufactures deicing chemicals and distributes them nationwide, will market SmartLane and oversee its installation. Alger, a project manager/research leader at KRC, is considering establishing a spin-off company to train contractors to apply SmartLane. Meanwhile Alger continues to tweak his invention.
"I'm finding now that some chemicals might work better than others, so the next step is to find that magic chemical," Alger said. "Most of the good ones are expensive, but if it costs $500 a gallon and it only takes one gallon to treat a bridge for a year, it's still a great deal."
Though SmartLane is not yet on the market, it has generated plenty of attention from road maintenance professionals, not all of them from above the Mason-Dixon line.
"There has been a big interest in the South," Alger said. "For example, Dallas gets a couple ice storms a year, and they don't have equipment to deal with it, so they have lots of accidents."
Next year, Alger expects to install SmartLane on three more Wisconsin bridges, plus one bridge in Indiana and another near Lansing. "We've also been talking with other states," he said. "I hope for an explosion of projects next summer."
Alger also envisions SmartLane solving winter maintenance woes at the nation's airports. It's currently being tested on a taxiway at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
"And the third side of the business would be commercial and residential applications, places like hospital entrances, university sidewalks, federal buildings or the entrance to Wal-Mart," he said. "We've joked about doing the Capitol steps."