Aquatron expands to help stop the spread of invasive ocean species

New ballast water treatment system at Dal

- June 21, 2012

The pumps in the expanded Aquatron facility, which can push up to 1,250 cubic metres of water each hour. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
The pumps in the expanded Aquatron facility, which can push up to 1,250 cubic metres of water each hour. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

The world moves by ship — and so do invasive species.

Shipping accounts for more than 80 per cent of the world’s commodities transportation, with port cities like Halifax playing critical roles in global trade. To help stay buoyant and balance their cargo, container ships gather and dump ballast water as they travel, bringing seawater from around the world into their hulls and dumping it as needed.

The problem is that ballast water is not just water. It often contains species: various bacteria, phytoplankton and other microorganisms. And this unexpected cargo is dropped off in harbours halfway around the world, where species never meant for a certain climate can quickly cause rapid damage to marine ecosystems.

Little wonder that the United Nations International Maritime Organization, has declared invasive marine species as one of the four greatest threats to the world’s oceans. And the impacts of invasive species are most often irreversible, unlike other forms of marine pollution where ameliorative action can be taken to encourage recovery.

Dalhousie is doing its part to help. A new ballast water facility within the Aquatron Laboratory is now up and running, with Trojan Technologies as its first user. The international water treatment corporation, headquartered in London, Ont., is using the facility to test products that treat ballast water, in line with new international regulations requiring every ship using ballast water to have approved systems that prevent the spread of invasive species.

“We’re very pleased to be the first users of this facility,” said Trojan President and CEO Marvin DeVries at a walkthrough this Thursday. ”It creates tremendous flexibility in terms of the water that can be tested, and the large flows. That’s critically important not only to us, but to the regulators who need to have an independent verification.”

Mad flows

He’s not kidding about those flows.

“Many other facilities can pump at about 200 or 300 cubic metres per hours,” explains John Batt, Aquatron manager. “But if a company is testing a product that would run 800, 900 or even 1,200 cubic metres per  hour aboard one of these large ships, they’d then have to use mathematical analysis to extrapolate that data. We don’t have to do that.
These pumps will allow us to run water at 1,250 cubic metres per hour.

"We would drain a standard Olympic-sized swimming pool in about 30 minutes.”

Testing ballast water at the Aquatron involves existing resources—such as its pool tank—but also new facilities that stretch into the still under-construction Oceans Excellence Centre. These include four large, concrete tanks — three of them sized at 300 cubic metres, the other at 400 cubic metres. These are connected by an intricate piping and valve system, allowing Dalhousie or industry researchers to bring in either fresh or salt water, treat it with UV rays to eliminate microorganisms, then test the effectiveness of the treatment.

The facility is so state-of-the-art that it can be operated remotely by computer. Mr. Batt even has an iPad tool to adjust the system as needed.

Meeting the needs of both Dal and industry

Trojan’s products are already being tested on-site. (Don’t worry: Aquatron staff are working closely with PCL construction to ensure everyone is operating safely as construction on the Oceans Excellence Centre continues.) But the new facilities will also aid Dal researchers.

In fact, when designing the system, Aquatron staff consulted with researchers across the university who might make use of the expanded facilities. It was through their feedback that the three 300 metre cubed tanks were all made the same size—for repetition in testing—and the fourth tank was designed so that it could also accommodate research examining the exchange of gases between the ocean and the atmosphere. Doug Wallace, Dal's Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ocean Science and Technology, is an international expert in just this sort of research.

Another Dal researcher, oceanographer John Cullen, was along for the tour.

“It’s really exciting and interesting to me because the scientic issues that arise are really cool, and [they are] problems that we’ve been studying as oceanographers for years and years, sometimes in entirely different contexts,” said Dr. Cullen. He notes that his team has done research on the effects of ultraviolet radiation on phytoplankton, but for an entirely different reason: they were looking at how ozone depletion would affect small ocean organisms.

It’s that sort of collaboration between world-class infrastructure and world-renowned researchers that makes Dalhousie’s Aquatron such an exciting facility, and the ideal location for ballast research, as Dalhousie Vice-President Research Martha Crago pointed out prior to the tour.

“The new expansion to [the Aquatron’s] tanks now makes it a singular facility in North America for joint university-industry research addressing ballast water as well as other critical marine environmental issues," she said.


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