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Move over salt. Here comes a new nature-based ice deterrent

Using salt to clear sidewalks and roads or glycol to de-ice planes could be replaced by biological antifreeze that prevents ice from forming.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Using salt to clear sidewalks and roads or glycol to de-ice planes could be replaced by biological antifreeze that prevents ice from forming.

New research might develop new chemicals to prevent ice or snow from freezing on surfaces. The plan is to synthetically produce molecules that some animal species use to survive extreme cold.

Molecules have been identified in nature from species such as wood frogs, Alaskan beetles, and some fish which can survive temperatures far below freezing. Those molecules could be used to make it harder for ice crystals to develop.

The solution is not raising wood frogs to extract the chemical, but to synthesize molecules and then test whether different molecules can be matched and mixed to find a combination that would depress the freezing point by several degrees.

The work would require screening thousands of molecules and combinations very rapidly. Using machine learning algorithms will speed up that work.

“What if we could prevent icing in the first place or if we could delay ice formation significantly,” asked Anish Tuteja, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at University of Michigan.

He’s leading the $11.5 million project which includes researchers from the University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University, and Raytheon Technologies, a defense contractor which has manufactured aircraft and missiles.

This new research could complement earlier work by Tuteja and his team at the University of Michigan. They’ve been making surfaces that reduce the ability of ice to stick. The surfaces can easily shed ice and snow. The combined technologies potentially could mean airplane wings would not ice up as easily or that ice and snow might not stick to power lines.

He said the addition of chemicals based on biological antifreeze to the already slippery surfaces being developed could potentially mean ice becomes less of a problem for all kinds of structures.

“Moving from just doing shedding ice and snow once it’s already fallen on a surface to maybe being able to create surfaces in cold environments that don’t ice at all,” said Tuteja.

The chemicals that could be developed would likely be biodegradable. That would be better than the de-icing solutions currently used.

A mixture of glycol and hot water is used to de-ice planes. If not properly contained, it can cause water pollution. The use of salt on roads is causing environmental damage. Substitutes have been tested, but they’re either not as effective or much more expensive.

Until this new research is complete and the results tested, it won’t be known if the new methods that Tuteja and his teams are developing will be cost effective.

He said the research should be complete and ready to scale up within two-and-a-half years.

“It will be a rapid project.”

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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