Icebreakers give drivers traction and inspire Alaskan ingenuity

On the left is a picture of glare ice, on the right is the same stretch of road after an icebreaker has gone over it.
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTUU) - A big churning wheel with carbide-tipped rollers punches holes in caked-on snow and ice. For the Alaska Department of Transportation, icebreakers have become an invaluable tool when freezing rain turns roads into ice rinks.

The Alaska DOT currently has six icebreakers that are used on roads, highways, runways and even sidewalks. The machines are built by Finnish company Raiko and then modified by the Alaska DOT to be mounted onto state snow plows.

Daniel Schacher, the Fairbanks Area Superintendent with Alaska DOT, says the icebreakers help put profile on glassy sheets of ice, helping drivers gain traction. The machines are said to work best when there is around one-quarter to half-an-inch of ice on the road. The small holes created by the icebreakers also help by better allowing deicing chemicals to sink through to the asphalt. Schacher says the icebreaker doesn’t put its weight on the ice, meaning the road’s surface isn’t destroyed.

All of the state’s icebreakers are currently located in the Fairbanks area as one big freezing rain event can act as a hazard for months. Schacher says it’s possible more could be bought by Alaska DOT.

The modification process used by the department has now been recognized across the country. Representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation contacted their counterparts in Alaska to get advice about mounting icebreakers to snow plows. They then took to social media to voice their approval of their new machines.

The purchase of the icebreakers has also helped inspire some Alaskan ingenuity that ended up winning a national design award. John Frison, an airfield maintenance mechanic at Fairbanks International Airport, saw the icebreaker and designed his own snow and ice crusher known as the “Yeti” back in 2015.

For his efforts, Frison was awarded the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) Most Innovative State Award. According to the Alask DOT, “not only does the Yeti crush ice and snow more efficiently, but it costs the state nearly 50 percent less to manufacture than it would cost to purchase a similar commercial product.”

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