Inside the Aquatron

Wet labs, tank space and specialized research equipment are contained in the Aquatron

- June 3, 2011

(Nick Pearce Photo)
(Nick Pearce Photo)

One of the best kept secrets at Dalhousie is a world-class marine and aquatics research facility – the Aquatron. The marine and freshwater laboratory is the centrepiece of Dalhousie’s marine and aquatic research endeavours.

The Aquatron features two large water tanks and has a capacity of 900,000 litres of water. It serves as an invaluable laboratory for aquatics researchers and is appropriately located in Dalhousie’s Life Sciences Centre. It’s both an academic and commercial research tool used by researchers and organizations around the world. Ranging from research on algae to testing of ballast water treatment, the Aquatron welcomes business from across the region, Canada and the world.

The facility will be expanded as part of the new Oceans Centre of Excellence at Dalhousie and is scheduled for completion in the Fall of 2011. Three new tanks will be added increasing capacity to 2.1 million litres.


“In advance of the expansion, the oceanographic and related research communities were polled to gauge the value of new tanks to the research community at Dalhousie and it was an avalanche of positive feedback,” says Kevin Dunn, director of Dalhousie’s Industry Liaison and Innovation Office. “To have the research capacity to go along with the commercial work and the world-class ocean and aquatic researchers – we feel we have the genesis of the dream team.”

Because it can provide precise environmental controls (temperature, salinity, oxygen) and an abundant supply of fresh seawater, in a variety of research settings, the Aquatron can simultaneously support large and small, short-term and multi-year programs, involving cold and warm water and marine or freshwater organisms (water is sourced from the the Northwest Arm about a kilometre away).

“Major amounts of marine research space, wet labs, tank space and specialized research equipment are all contained and being used within the Aquatron,” says John Batt, manager of the Aquatron Laboratory. “I can’t think of any other facility located directly on a core campus that is two blocks from a medical campus and four blocks from an engineering campus, all of whom have faculty doing research here.”

The work done at the Aquatron has implications to basic and applied science, education and the private sector that impact our knowledge and understanding of the oceans, marine life and the economic factors we rely on them for.

Invasive organisms

Ballast water treatment, for example, is critical to the shipping industry. Historically, when a ship from another country would arrive at a Canadian port, it emptied ballast water, thereby depositing foreign organisms into the waters at both locations. The result was highly destructive to both the economy and ecosystem threatening species that other industries that rely on the ocean. Because of this, current regulations require ships to flush their ballast tanks at sea, outside territorial waters, in deep oceanic waters but this is dangerous to ships and their crews and has led to several mishaps.

“Invasive organisms are one of the most recognized threats to our ecosystems both in fresh and saltwater,” explains Mr. Batt. “Some organisms can pose a threat to human health where ships enter large lakes used for drinking water.”

The United Nations International Marine Organisation (UN-IMO is laying out strict regulations for ballast water treatment in the coming years, and ships will likely require treatment systems to enter a nation’s waters. Validation requires testing in quantities of water of 200 cubic metres or more and Dalhousie's Aquatron is the only facility that can meet these requirements.

“This brings the capacity and the infrastructure to potentially become a ballast water test facility that could be used by others from other local and global markets,” says Mr. Dunn. “The Aquatron is unique to the world,” adds Mr. Batt. “No other business community with this many marine-focused businesses has access to these kind of facilities.”


World-renowned Dalhousie researchers routinely take advantage of the Aquatron. Some of the professors who use the lab are oceanography’s Anna Metaxas, biology’s Jeff Hutchings (who is currently researching cod at the Aquatron), and engineering’s Graham Gagnon, the Canada Research Chair in Water Quality & Treatment. In an unexpected but welcomed development, Dalhousie's new Canada Excellence Research Chair, Doug Wallace will be able to conduct testing on his sea equipment in the same building in which he'll work, saving time and money from having to test outside of Dalhousie.

Opened in 1974 the Aquatron has served researchers for nearly 40 years. Additionally, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the National Research Council, Environment Canada, Ripley's Entertainment (based in Florida) and various private companies have used the lab for their testing and experiments. The lab as also acted as a link for many researchers and industry partners, continually fostering collaborative opportunities. The facility is scheduled for renovations that will see it become more environmentally friendly and efficient, through the development of innovative technologies due for completion in the fall of 2011.

“There is a critical mass of opportunity here in Halifax that we can reach out to and create more partnerships locally, nationally and globally,” says Mr. Batt. “We're open for business. The Aquatron is playing on the world scale now.”

LINK: Dalhousie’s Aquatron


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