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A new product discovered quite by accident may be the magic bullet long sought to combat icy winter roads, area municipalities are saying.

"Magic Minus Zero" is being used on an experimental basis in several townships in Niagara County, said David Cook, a representative for the distributor, Innovative Municipalities U.S.

Newfane, Niagara, Hartland, Somerset and Cambria are currently using the product, Cook said. The New York State Thruway Authority also uses it to combat "black ice" on the Grand Island bridges.

The Town of Porter has been the trend-setter, however, first mixing the liquid anti-icing agent with road salt to extend the latter's usefulness and now using it on its own to help keep roadways clear.

Porter Highway Superintendent Scott Hillman said he has been pleased with the results to date, noting that "Magic Minus Zero" enjoys several advantages over common road salt.

While priced comparatively to salt, it is saddled with none of the environmental drawbacks inherent to salt use: runoff that damages vegetation and waterways and corrodes vehicles and infrastructure.

"Magic Minus Zero" does "at least as effective a job as salt in keeping snow from bonding with the road," Hillman said. "But it's nontoxic, and we're always looking for something that's environmentally friendly."

That's not the only advantage to the product, Hillman said. Gooey in consistency, it remains effective on roadways considerably longer than salt -- up to a week -- and it can be plowed over repeatedly while remaining effective.

"Magic Minus Zero" is sprayed on roadways using a small truck operated by one person, as opposed to the two-person crew necessary for salt applications. And because it can -- in fact should -- be applied before storms hit, alert highway crews can often do the work during normal business hours, thereby saving overtime costs.

As if that weren't enough, an unintended side effect has also proven beneficial, Hillman said: The liquid goo serves to "lubricate" highway equipment, perhaps extending its life in the process.

Not bad for something made from the runoff of the alcohol distillation process. Cook explained that the product -- previously known as "Ice Ban" and "Ice Be Gone" -- was discovered by a chemist at a distillery in Hungary about 10 years ago.

A leak from a distilling tank had flowed into a nearby stream, Cook said, preventing the stream from freezing over. The chemist initially feared that the stream would be polluted but was pleased to note that "not only did it not harm the environment, but things thrived because it was full of nutrients," Cook said.

The "distiller solubles" such as sugars and ethanol, which make up "Magic Minus Zero," were formerly used as cattle and pig feed, Cook said. The animals appeared to enjoy its molasses-like consistency and sweet flavor.

Since its anti-icing qualities were noticed, however, the product has enjoyed a much higher calling.

The product melts snow and ice to "well below zero -- 20 degrees below, actually," Cook said. When used as a "pre-icer," it temporarily colors the roadway brown, which serves to alert motorists to its presence, Hillman said.

The discoloration gradually washes away without ill effect.

Cook said that a study conducted in Michigan found that use of the "Magic" product resulted in "probably an 8-to-1 savings ratio" for municipalities, when considering the damage road salt does to pavement, bridges, decks and vehicles.

"Studies have estimated that $800 billion in damage is done annually" by road salt, he said. "So it's very economical to use this product. Many townships are starting to use it with great success."

"So far it's been a success," Hillman said. "The opportunities (to use it) have been kind of few and far between so far this year, but I don't mind that, either."

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