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New system takes aim at ‘alien hitchhikers’

A Virginia company is testing a new system designed to kill marine plants and animals that hitch rides in ballast water.

Nutech-O3 Inc. of McLean, Va., was awarded a $1.7 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study invasive species that relocate by means of ships’ ballast water. While often harmless in their natural environments, these organisms can create real problems when they are offloaded in new locations.

Since their discovery in the Great Lakes region in 1988, zebra mussels have spread throughout all the Great Lakes and into the St. Lawrence Seaway and Hudson River, and south along the Mississippi River and its tributary system. Zebra mussels are expected to invade New England waters.

“Each year aquatic invasive species cause billions of dollars in damage on the U.S. economy, much of which is passed on to the consumer,” retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, said in a statement. “NOAA and the Bush administration are working to improve the understanding of our environment and to strengthen local and regional research like that of Nutech-O3.”

Formed in 1997, Nutech in 1998 was contracted by British Petroleum to test whether pumping ozone into ballast water would effectively kill organisms without corroding a ship’s hull.

“We’ve solved the problem,” says Joel Mandelman of Nutech. “We already know it works in labs.”

The company also has done some field testing of the system. A prototype was installed four years ago on the BP tanker Tonsina, which operates on the U.S. West Coast. The system pumped ozone into the ballast tanks and killed 99.9 percent of most organisms, according to Mandelman. The work was funded by the Ballast Water Technology Demonstration Program, NOAA Sea Grant, BP and others.

Ozone can be naturally produced in the air after a lightning strike. Nutech mimics this by pumping pure oxygen into the system and then bombarding it with electricity, Mandelman says. Ozone is effectively used as a disinfectant, and in water recycling and pollution control. In fact, Mandelman says, the invasive species project uses the same technology that cleanses and disinfects laundry water aboard Navy ships.

“It’s a lot more effective and safer than chlorine,” says Mandelman.

Mandelman says ozone released into the air breaks up very quickly and, therefore, isn’t a health hazard.

The upcoming study, Mandelman says, will test a more cost-efficient system than the Tonsina’s. The initial project required 21,000 feet of stainless steel pipes to be installed leading to the ship’s ballast tanks. Mandelman says the new system will pump ozone directly into the intake pipe, which will reduce the costs to shipping companies by about 35 percent. Depending on the size of the ship and other criteria, the system costs around $1 million. Mass production of the system will drive the cost further down, he says.

The new system likely will be installed in the Prince William Sound, a BP tanker that runs between Valdez in Alaska and San Francisco.

Nutech will publish data when the study is complete, probably this spring. If the product is as effective as Nutech believes, the timing couldn’t be better for the shipping industry. Federal officials are pushing for legislation to combat invasive species. The National Aquatic Invasive Species Act establishes ballast water standards to halt ballast water exchange, and provides funding for research, monitoring and rapid response. Mandelman says the legislation, which didn’t pass during the most recent legislative session, is expected to be introduced in January. The Coast Guard in July also published regulations establishing a national mandatory ballast water management program for all vessels equipped with ballast tanks that operate in U.S. waters.

Each year NOAA awards about $900 million in grants to members of the academic, scientific and business communities that help the agency predict environmental change, manage ocean resources, protect life and property, and provide decision-makers with reliable scientific information.