Wisconsin Using Cheese Brine To De-Ice Roads This Year: Saves Money, But Smells Bad

By Ben Wolford on November 22, 2013 7:55 AM EST

Cheese Salt
Some Wisconsin municipalities are trying to new kind of road salt. (Photo: Photo: Shutterstock)

When the roads get icy, most cities turn to their stockpiles of road salt. But Wisconsin has a better idea: cheese brine.

In Wisconsin, which makes a fourth of all the cheese produced in the United States, it's cheaper to gather up an unwanted cheese-making byproduct than it is to purchase tons of road salt ever year. One rural county across the Minnesota border has been slicking the roads with salty cheesy sludge for years, Modern Farmer reports. In the first year, Polk County saved $40,000.

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The Chicago Tribune reports that other communities — not just farming towns full of cheese brine — are looking into the idea. Milwaukee's Department of Public Works has the go-ahead to begin a pilot program to see if cheese brine works in the city. Modern Farmer quotes Emil Norby, a Wisconsin highway employee, saying, "I think they want to try it in New York."

The benefits are many. But what is cheese brine, and how does it melt ice? The chemistry is pretty simple. When the temperature drops to zero, liquid water molecules slow down enough to freeze into ice. Drop the temperature some more, and more water molecules freeze together at a faster rate.

But stick some foreign molecules in the way, and those water molecules become, in effect, diluted by the other substance. The water can't stick together as easily, and the freezing point drops to a lower temperature. For example, with the right concentration of salt, a road crew can drop the freezing point of water on a roadway to -10 degrees Celsius. That means if the temperature outside is -5, the ice will melt. Any kind of solute can be used to slow freezing, but salt is just cheaper and more readily available.

That is, unless you're in Wisconsin. Factories and farms that make cheese (Italian cheeses, like mozzarella, in particular) use a solution of salt in water, called brine, to soak the cheese. It prevents bacteria from turning lactose to lactic acid. It helps the curds ripen and makes the cheese taste better. But when they're done with the brine, the companies often have to pay someone to haul it away. Enter Norby: "I knew we had a lot of dairies looking to get rid of this stuff," he told Modern Farmer. "I figured why not give it a whirl."

The brine works just as well as salt, and it's usually employed in addition to road salt as a method to keep the salt rocks from bouncing off the street. Road crews lose a third of the salt they drop because it skitters uselessly to the curb. The cheese brine is a kind of adhesive.

"What better to put on your roads than the scent of mozzarella?" John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheesemaker's Association, told the Chicago Tribune. But Modern Farmer says it's not quite true. Norby says it smells like whey — so a little gross. Fine, perhaps, for farm country used to the sharp stench of manure, but not ideal in, say, New York. "Our roads smell like Wisconsin!" Norby says.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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