You’re behind the wheel zooming down the highway late at night. You’re only thinking how nice it will feel when you arrive home. Suddenly, your car starts sliding toward a guardrail and you experience an instant, gut-wrenching sense of panic.
That’s what is commonly known as hitting black ice, one of the most dangerous winter weather-related hazards drivers face. When the temperature is around or just below freezing, black ice – a thin, frozen glaze covering the roadway – can form without warning.
Mark Boenke knows a lot about highway hazards. A 1992 Rose-Hulman civil engineering alumnus with years of experience in interstate infrastructure maintenance, operations, and safety, Boenke understands the challenges states and localities face trying to keep their roadways safe in all weather conditions. One big challenge they face is getting the most efficient use out of their resources both in budget dollars and supplies.
To address that challenge, Boenke’s company, PILLAR, developed a device that instantaneously and continuously measures the concentration of salt present in the road’s surface water. If the salt concentration is adequate, then municipalities can save money and cause less environmental and infrastructure damage by not over-applying salt to the road surface.
That’s where SAM enters the picture. SAM is a salinity measurement device patented by PILLAR that reads the salt concentration, via electrical conductivity, in the water spraying off of the salt spreader’s back tire. If the salt concentration levels are too low to prevent the forming of black ice, the driver is notified to apply more salt. If concentration levels are adequate, the driver is notified that no additional salt is needed.
Keeping unnecessary salt off the highways is a primary goal of SAM, Boenke says. That can save highway maintenance dollars and avoid damage to existing roads and natural resources.
“Salt damages steel bridges and other infrastructure assets as well as vehicles. It’s also an environmental hazard,” he says.
Boenke turned to Ventures in 2017 when PILLAR was trying to find the best materials to use for the SAM device that would not be damaged by the highly corrosive saltwater. The company had been grappling with the problem for over a year, but the team at Ventures found a solution very quickly.
“Within a week, they figured it out. I was shocked,” Boenke says.
Apart from their problem-solving skills, Boenke says he especially values the no-strings-attached approach to intellectual property taken by the team at Ventures. “That was why we chose them,” he says
PILLAR hopes to have SAM ready for the market by 2021.