Science is more than theory and lecture. Science is fun. Science is hands-on. Science is…
Why haven’t scientists improved on plowing-and-salting?
Quick! Search your pockets for signs of 2015.
A seemingly limitless smart phone? Check. A gadget the size of a business card that plays hundreds of songs? Check.
A key fob that starts your car for you, practically guaranteeing you a warm driver’s seat by the time you arrive? Check – oh, wait, that’s not really new.
But it’s still a more modern science than what cities, counties and states cling to in an attempt to make roads safe for travel on snowy and icy days.
Drivers in Michigan received a rude reminder of that fact Friday, Jan. 9, when nearly 200 vehicles made unwanted acquaintances on a weather-slicked stretch of I-94 between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. One of the 18-wheelers in the massive pileup carried 40,000 pounds of fireworks that ignited to provide spectacular visuals for the evening news.
So forget Marty McFly’s long-promised hoverboard. Forget a vending machine that doesn’t trap your Cheetos.
Why, oh why, hasn’t science relegated plowing-and-salting to the horse-and-buggy column?
“Current technology solutions aren’t cost-effective,” says Murali Krishnamurthi, an NIU Presidential Teaching Professor in engineering and acting vice provost for Faculty Affairs.
“This is a worldwide problem – it’s not only here; it’s wherever it snows – and if there were better solutions, people would have done them by now,” Krishnamurthi adds. “Simple solutions involve humans salting and removing snow.”
Krishnamurthi has pondered this since 1991, when he moved to DeKalb from the southern climes of Texas.
Sometimes, when he’s outside shoveling his “huge” driveway near campus, he wonders if he could install heating elements underneath the cement that would sense the cold above, raise the pavement temperature and melt the snow and ice.
Maybe, he thinks – although he knows the same concept isn’t feasible for America’s roads. The wear-and-tear caused by traffic would prove hazardous for embedded technology that, he says, would require special and costly pavement along with massive amounts of energy.
One U.S. innovator believes he’s hit on the cure-all for winter-weary drivers – solar-powered roadways – but numerous detractors are snowing on his parade. Among their complaints is the same hitch: The idea is just too expensive to truly implement.
Well, people have asked Krishnamurthi, what about sand? “Sand doesn’t have the same de-icing properties as salt,” he says.
To make matters worse, chemicals in road salt can cause environmental problems. And, because the salt degrades over time, buying more than is needed for a snowy season wastes money.
Finances also are strained by labor costs, especially in big cities where wages are typically higher or during overnight storms when overtime pay is warranted, and by fuel prices.
Prioritize and plan, says Purush Damodaran, associate professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.
Damodaran began considering snow removal years ago when he explored the problem for his thesis – at the suggestion of Krishnamurthi, who suffered a broken arm after slipping on an icy sidewalk.
As a systems engineer, Damodaran tackled the issue from a perspective of process.
“We want to dispatch the plows in a meaningful way and remove all the snow from the roads in the fastest manner,” he says. “Roads must be assigned high priority, medium priority and low priority, and the drivers need to know in what sequence to plow the streets.”
High priority roads surround hospitals and schools, he says. Residential neighborhoods are assigned medium priority. Parking lots come last.
Municipalities also should choose strategic locations for salt storage and plow parking, he says.
Clean roadways are important for the professor, who commutes to DeKalb from Naperville.
“They take good care of I-88, actually,” he says. “They manage to bring in enough resources.”