Accidental Global Aquatic Hitchhikers to be stopped dead by South African Invention

By Dr Garth Cambray

Ballast water stowaways are the ultimate accidental global tourists - aquatic organisms who start their day swimming in their home environment, get sucked up into the ballast tank of a passing ship, and 7-10 days later get dumped in a new environment, where they can become invasive species. 

If one looks at the way a ship is constructed, it has an optimal depth at which it must float to be stable - too high and it is unstable, too low and it uses too much fuel (amongst other problems). After a ship is loaded or unloaded and begins to move out to sea, ballast tanks are filled with water from the surrounding sea. This water adjusts the buoyancy of the ship. When a viable population of a specific organism (be it bacteria, fungus, fish, mussel, seaweed, phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, insect or anything else) is sucked into the ballast tank, and survives a long journey and then also survives in a new environment into which it is released when the ballast tanks are emptied, the species is termed a stowaway organism. If it survives, it is an alien invasive, as it is alien to the environment in which it is growing.

Classic examples of ballast water stowaways who have become invasive species include the Zebra mussel which has caused havoc in North America costing billions of dollars; a type of jelly fish from North America has become established in the Black Sea and destroyed the fishing industry in the area; exotic mussels have become a pest on the coasts of South Africa displacing the more environmentally important indigenous species. The list is endless with nearly 7000 species of organisms hitch hiking around the globe and potentially becoming pests each year in their new homes.

Many different solutions have been proposed to treat ballast water. The water can be heated, oxygenated, deoxygenated, chlorinated, treated with biocides, filtered, or even hyperoxygenated and then the pressure dropped to cause organisms to get gas bubble embolisms inside them. There are several more methods as well. However, A South African company is in the lead to catch a significant share of the US$10-15bn which will be spent on ship ballast water treatment in the next ten years. 

Ian Vroom has had a long and successful career in water treatment. His background in civil engineering, and creative approach to solving potable water production problems has seen him being awarded many accolades and prizes. In 2001 his interests took a major swerve away from potable water treatment when he heard about the global ballast water problem. Upon investigating the extent of the problem it became evident that between 3 and 5 billion tons of water are moved around the world in ballast tanks every year - to treat that water is a big and exciting challenge.

Many years of experimentation and design modifications produced a small unit which can fit inline in a normal ballast discharge pipe - the system is only slightly bigger than the pipe, hence it is ideal for retrofitting ships which are already in operation, and is also simple to install on new ships.

Using a combination of different disruptive forces the system produces water of more than acceptable discharge standards. As mentioned earlier, currently used technologies often used chemical agents to kill organisms. A highly effective water sterilizer is ozone - which operates in a similar way to chlorine, by ripping apart and chemically destroying organic material - but unlike chlorine, ozone produces chemical by products which are not pollutants - treatment of water with chlorine produces various pollutants.

Hence, for ballast water treatment, ozone is a better chemical treatment, but the problem with ozone is that it reacts so rapidly with other chemicals in the sea water that within 5 seconds of its introduction, half of it has reacted with the various bromides in the sea water and been removed from circulation. In fresh water ozone has a half life of 19 minutes, which makes it more effective here for water treatment as it persists for long enough to do something. Clever engineering however allows the Resource Ballast Technologies system to use ozone and various mechanical forces effectively to destroy life forms in the water without producing dangerous by-products.

It is evident so far that clever design and experience, coupled with out of the box thinking, have allowed the Resource Ballast Technologies team to produce a world class technology. But what happens next? Recently the company has raised venture capital through Triumph Venture Capital. This company has a venture capital fund, the Southern African Intellectual Property Fund ("SAipFund"), which is focused on technology based entrepreneurial start ups. Resource Ballast Technologies has sold a percentage share to the SAipFund which has raised R6 million for the growth and implementation of the ballast water treatment technologies.

Although proof of concept has been demonstrated at an attractive demonstration facility in Cape Town, the actual marketing of the technology is currently hampered by the time it takes for a technology to be registered with the International Maritime Organisation of the United Nations (IMO). This important regulatory authority is very diligent, and consequently slow, in approving any technology for use as an approved technology. However, once approved, IMO compliance provides a useful method for policing intellectual property. 

Maritime law is a minefield, and many shipping companies register ships in backwater nations with few laws. Consequently, patenting a technology and protecting it can be expensive as that would require registering patents in practically every seaside nation on Earth. Resource Ballast Technologies have taken a different approach - patents have been lodged in all major countries which receive and dispatch shipping cargo - hence these countries will require an IMO approved ballast water treatment technology to be installed on a ship, and, once the Resource Ballast Technologies system is registered with the IMO, this organization becomes far more effective as a measure of policing a patent than the patent itself.

The next question one may ask is how much and how fast does this technology work? Various units are in development from a small unit which processes 250 cubic meters of water an hour to a large unit which handles 3500 cubic meters per hour (to put that in perspective an Olympic swimming pool contains 2500 cubic meters of water). The small unit uses approximately 7kw of power, drawn off the 3 phase electrical supply on the ship. New advances will however reduce the electricity demand further. This invention from South Africa looks set to be a useful tool in the global fight against ballast water stowaways.

October 2007

Ian Vroom (Director): +27-82-579 7966