BOURNE — For generations, fighting snow and ice meant salting, sanding, and plowing roads when a storm hit. Last winter, the state experimented with treating frost-prone bridges and roads 48 hours in advance with a special brine to deter ice and snow from sticking and allow the state to use less salt and labor during the storm.
The problem? It cost 55 cents a gallon, and that doesn’t cover much pavement. Enter the BrineXtreme, a $160,000 apparatus that resembles a futuristic whiskey still and allows the state to mix the special liquid itself at just seven cents a gallon.
Even used sparingly, and adding in the cost of a tanker truck and other paraphernalia, the BrineXtreme should pay for itself in a couple of winters, state officials said as they admired its five ton-capacity stainless steel salt hopper and network of carefully calibrated pipes and valves at the state’s Sagamore highway barn Wednesday.
“I wish I’d invented it,” said Paul Brown, director of snow and ice operations for the Department of Transportation’s Highway Division. “This is one more tool that will allow us to do our job better.’’
Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey added, “Not too often do I get excited about a piece of machinery.” This was one of those times.
Davey called the BrineXtreme a metaphor for the department, formed in 2009 from the state’s highway, turnpike, and transit agencies. “It does everything that we’re doing at MassDOT, reducing our cost and improving the customer experience.”
The reverie was snapped by the acknowledgment that Massachusetts is among the last of the snowy states to acquire a brine maker, trailing most of the Northeast and Midwest.
Even some municipalities here have their own, like Boston, which began pretreating roads with a home brew mixed in its own AccuBrine, a BrineXtreme competitor, in 2008, according to a city spokesman.
“I will say we’re the last big major state in New England to jump onto salt brine,” Brown offered.
Make that the last state of any size in New England. “Rhode Island beat us by maybe a hair,” he said. “They put theirs in this summer, so it’s a tie between us and Rhode Island, how about that?”
Formerly a pioneer, Massachusetts was among the first states two decades ago to use liquid calcium chloride and magnesium chloride to enhance traditional sand and rock salt — much of which bounces away, to the harm of nearby steel, concrete, vegetation, and wildlife — in critical areas.
But the state rested on its wintry laurels. Magnesium chloride and calcium chloride can be spread only a few hours in advance and cost about $1 a gallon.
In the spirit of the “megaplows” introduced last winter — a fleet of five hulking vehicles that clear twice the width of traditional plows — the BrineXtreme is another innovation, Davey said.
The BrineXtreme combines water with rock salt to create a solution similar in salinity to seawater, then blends that in an 85-to-15 percent ratio with liquid magnesium chloride. The resulting brine has many benefits, cutting down on in-storm overtime and allowing material to go further, officials said. One pound of salt blended into the brine is about as effective as three pounds of rock salt dumped directly on the road.
The BrineXtreme’s brine will at first be used only in the southeastern parts of the state, hauled to storage tanks in 11 locations so crews can quickly refill. The BrineXtreme can produce 6,000 gallons per hour, and 25,000 to 50,000 gallons are needed to treat the district’s highway lanes in a typical storm.
“The ultimate big goal is to probably have several” around the state in future winters, Brown said, catching the attention of the secretary.
“I heard you spending my money,” joked Davey, who had been studying a device he likened to a “homemade moonshine” operation.
“There will be others,” Brown said. “It really will in the long term help us become much more efficient.”