Bernard Jacobs was somewhat surprised when the ballast water treatment system he had mortgaged his house to develop was held up in the media as an example of the inadequacy of the type-approval process.
Bernard is CEO of South African company Resource Ballast Technologies (RBT), and he and colleague Dr. Ian Vroom had been developing the system since 2001. Vroom is a water purification specialist, and both men were attracted to this new application. “The solution Ian was proposing looked incredibly simple,” Bernard stated, “so we built a prototype. The first time we ran it the results were shocking, but he modified it. Then third-time round, the results were incredible.”
Bernard was self-funding the development so there was no danger of over-engineering, he says, but he now needed capital to turn it into a marketable proposition. His own background was in computer systems and financial management. He put all other commitments aside and dedicated himself to the new venture. “It took me 18 months, and I knocked on no fewer than 300 doors of venture capitalists, investors and private equity companies.”
Perseverance paid off, and Bernard eventually secured financing and a licensing partner to handle manufacturing while RBT retained the intellectual property rights to the technology. The system was one of the first to receive type approval in 2010; but at this point, after several positive years, financing relationships soured, and the company’s licensing partner decided to withdraw the system from the market.
It came at a time when IMO was discussing the type-approval process. Questions had been raised about the need to test fresh water as well as brackish and seawater. The variability in marine organisms around the world was causing concern about a common standard for type approvals and the ability of any one treatment system to meet the challenges of global trade. How could testers be sure that an organism was really non-viable or just temporarily stunned? Confidence in the array of technologies being developed was being questioned.
Bernard then had the additional challenge of finding a new partner. This time, though, it was easy. South African subsea equipment specialist Unique Hydra was a perfect fit, he says, and he likens the new partnership to a breath of fresh air. “Quality, safety and integrity are paramount to Unique Hydra,” he explained. “The company has accumulated substantial experience in marine engineering, military, aerospace, nuclear and chemical engineering.”
The type-approval certificate has been re-issued for the system in the name of RBT by the South African administration, and further approvals are to be obtained through DNV. So Bernard is ready to tackle the market again. “Our system has been tested at biological loads much higher than those set by the type-approval process,” he says, although he still has a few technical developments in mind for the system. “70,000 ships is a lot of ships, and we will enhance our system’s flexibility and capacity to suit a wide variety of installation scenarios.”
Why this persistence when now he has at least 20 type-approved competitors, some of them developed by large multinationals? “I fully believe in the system. I’ve been close to it since its development and I’ve seen it perform. You see questions being raised around the industry about all the other technologies – the way they handle varying flow rates, for example. These hurdles will be ongoing. We are developing a brand new solution for a very challenging market. Shipowners are going to look around. If I am going to save them money, save them energy, offer them a system that is easy to use with a low cost of operation, they will notice.”
He says a UV system treating 1,000 cubic meters of water an hour consumes 100-120 kilowatts of power while his system, treating the same amount of water, uses only 7-10 kilowatts of power. The secret to the simplicity of the system is the use of ultrasonic cavitation that amplifies the effects of ozone and sodium hypochlorite at a concentration of just one part per million. The sterilization process is only run at uptake and is preceded by filtration.
RBT is a former South African Technology Top 100 Award winner and was Frost & Sullivan’s Global Entrepreneurial Company of the Year for the ballast water treatment industry in 2010. Can Bernard make the company a success again? – MarEx
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.