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Though made from rum and vodka byproducts, Magic Minus Zero contains no alcohol. Road departments, mostly in the Northeastern states, have been using the liquid de-icer for several years.

Skyrocketing salt prices, 24 miles of roads, and another potentially severe winter don't make northern Illinois a winter wonderland for Pingree Grove Public Works Director Pat Doherty. Instead, he has to find ways to stretch his salt supply.

Then he read about a liquid de-icer — made from magnesium chloride and the remains of plants used to make liquor — that gives new meaning to the concept of reduce, reuse, and recycle.

According to Magic Salt manufacturer Sears Ecological Applications Co. LLC, a scientist at an Eastern European vodka factory noticed how the pond behind the distillery never froze. After realizing the phenomenon was due to the sugary leftover swill that collects in the pond, the chemist figured out how to turn the mush into a de-icer.

Doherty's first thought was: “Does it work?”

He took a chance and purchased Magic Minus Zero (Magic -0°). The sticky brown syrup smells like soy sauce and contains no alcohol. Less corrosive than distilled water, it doesn't harm equipment or roads, destroy carpeting or flooring, or kill plants as rapidly as rock salt. In fact, the company claims, it's so safe that it's edible before it's sprayed on salt, but the bitter/sour taste makes it unpalatable for animals.

The substance can be applied directly to pavement before a snowstorm, or sprayed onto rock salt to neutralize the salt's corrosive nature and double the salt's impact. It melts snow and ice in temperatures to -35° F.

“We've used 40% less salt treated with this product as compared to just plain salt,” says Doherty says Doherty. “And when pretreating surfaces with liquid, we've had virtually no ice bonding to the roadways.”

This is good news for a department that watched helplessly as salt prices soared from $55 to $65/ton last season to $120/ton this year. (For more information on salt supplies in general, see page 43.)

By purchasing Magic Minus Zero at $3.55/gallon, Doherty has brought the village's cost of salt down to $85/ton. This savings includes the $7,000 the village paid for the spray application unit and $5,500 for storage tanks and plumbing.

After the first two snowfalls of the season, Doherty says his magic salt is working well. And as long as rain doesn't wash it away, he says, a single application works for up to two weeks.