Automated viability testing system for aquatic organisms in ballast water and environmental samples

Case ID:

Automated Viability Testing System for Aquatic Organisms in Ballast Water and Environmental Samples  

WSU Tech#: 14-1231

Technology Summary:

Wayne State University (WSU) is validating a prototype device that can test a ships’ treated ballast water for living organisms automatically.  The device can be operated from anywhere via internet connection.  Testing is fully automated and the device uses a unique reusable filtration system that is capable of running 150+ tests before requiring the filter cartridges to be changed.  The test data can be reported from the device via internet connection to end users anywhere in the world.  This device has the following advantages over current systems:

·         Can be engineered into a ships ballast system so there is no need for manual sampling.

·         Uses highly sensitive fluorescence based system to detect any living organisms.

·         Can be operated via internet connection so the system can be operated from virtually anywhere in the world.  

·         Sample data sent to operator via internet connection in minutes.

·         Sample cartridges are reusable and only need changed every 150+ tests.  This dramatically reduces time and costs.

·         The device can be manufactured for under $10,000 USD.

Competitive Advantages


Estimates are that ships pump more than 21 billion tons of ballast water into U.S. waters every year; that is, 40,000 gallons a minute or nearly 700 gallons a second.  One ship alone can carry up to 10 million gallons of ballast water.   It is estimated that over 4,500 marine species travel around the world in ships’ ballast water on a daily basis. They range from microscopic bacteria to large fish and plants.

Recent testing of ballast water revealed that many contained large volumes of harmful viruses and bacteria.  Of particular concern is the bacterium that causes cholera, a deadly disease.  Scientists believe that cholera is being spread rapidly around the world via ballast water.  As specific example, in 1991, it is believed a cholera outbreak that originated in Asia was carried to South America in ballast water.  The outbreak in South America resulted in over a million reported cholera cases and over 10,000 deaths.  An identical cholera strain responsible for the outbreak in South America was later found in fish and oysters as far North as the waters of Mobile, Alabama.  Again, ballast water is believed to be the cause of the spread.  Ballast water can also harbor invasive species that cause large scale damage to native ecosystems.  An example of this occurred in Monroe, Michigan in 1988.  Residents turned on their faucets to find that they had no water because mollusks had completely clogged up the water system.  The cause was invasive species that quietly sneaked into the US in ship’s ballast water.  One study estimates that the total costs of invasive species in the United States amount to more than $100 billion each year.

Because of the impact of unregulated ballast water, the United States Cost Guard published new rules on the treatment of ballast water on June 21, 2012.  These rules augment prior regulations and also designated approved testing facilities to test ballast water for invasive organisms.  Ensuring strict compliance with international and local laws regarding ballast water has created a large market for the treatment of ballast water.  Cumulative investments of over $30 billion are expected to be made into ballast water treatment systems (BWTS) over this decade, according to a study recently conducted by Frost & Sullivan. Investments will concern more than 57,000 maritime vessels that will require a ballast water treatment system to be installed during the period 2009-2020, driving massive requirements for system orders.  Ensuring these systems work properly and destroy living organisms will be a critical end step in the process prior to sending samples off to approved 3rd party testing facilities.


Because of the developing concern over foreign organisms in ballast water and the build-up in the ballast water treatment industry, device manufacturers are developing tools to test ballast water and ensure successful treatment.  These results are invaluable to ensure that subsequent testing will result in approval to dump ballast water into local ecosystems.  Current ballast water testing devices are available and quantify the number of live organisms that are present in the ballast water after treatment.  The issue with these devices is that they require manual labor to extract a sample from the ships’ ballast tanks, change the filter or cartridge on the unit (between tests), perform the test, get a result and submit that result for review and documentation.  All of this takes place on the ship or at port.


 Stage of Development: Still in testing and validation phases.



Patent Status:


Core technology has filed for patent protection under Wayne State Technology Number 12-1109.  A second filing was submitted in 2014 to cover new improvements to the system.


Licensing Opportunity:

WSU is looking for a commercial partners interested in furthering the validation of this technology and bringing the technology to market.  The inventors would be open to assist in the generation of SBIR/STTR  grants to fund the further development of this technology.  Opportunities include:


Ballast Water:  Full validation of the device is expected to be completed no later than 2015.  Funding is already in place to complete the validation.  WSU is looking for a commercial partner that is capable of transitioning the prototype device to a working commercial model that can be engineered to fit current shipping vessels and test the ships ballast water as described above.


Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOS):  Large Animal feeding operations have potential issues with live organisms going into the operations (water for animal consumption) and runoff from operations (which may seep into ground water, fields or local streams, rivers, lakes and ponds).  Bacteria, fungus, molds, algae and other microorganisms can threaten animal health or the surrounding environment.  A system that is able to detect all living microorganisms can give a better indication of potential issues versus looking at a limited variety of microorganisms.  This technology can be easily adapted to these types of operations.


Animal Processing:  It is common knowledge that the processing plants in the meat industry are known for high water consumption.  The water is typically contaminated with protein and carbohydrates from meat, fat, blood, skin, etc.  This is a breeding ground for all types of bacteria, molds, fungi, etc.  The new technology would be able to automatically test water run-off as well as the water used in meat chillers to determine if there may be a potential issue with the product.


Additional Opportunities:  Since the EPA passed the Beach Act in 2000, each state and territory with costal recreation water are required to adopt water quality standards at least as stringent as the “1986 Bacteria Criteria”.  This criterion gives recommendations for acceptable bacteria levels at recreational beaches.  The criterion gives recommendations for allowable limits of total bacteria, E. coli (235 density per single sample, 75% C.L.), enterococci (density of 61 in a single sample, 75% C.L.) and fecal coliform (maximum geometric mean of 200 per 100 ml).  Constant monitoring can take a lot of manpower and cost.  Automatically monitoring of live/dead samples could be used to monitor general trends in organism populations in general and identify bacterial and algae blooms.  This could be a good indicator of changes and allow for less frequent testing of specific organisms.


For wastewater treatment plants receiving industrial wastewater, they have to cope with recalcitrant chemicals that the bacteria can degrade only very slowly, and with toxic chemicals that inhibit the functioning of the activated sludge bacteria. High concentrations of toxic chemicals can produce a toxic shock that kills the bacteria. When this happens the plant may pass untreated effluent direct to the environment, until the dead bacteria have been removed from the tanks and new bacterial ‘seed’ introduced.  The proposed technology can measure the amount of bacteria in the wastewater treatment tanks and provide a continual assessment of bacterial health.  Since the proposed system uses a back-flush based system, the toxic chemicals that may be in the tanks will be eliminated or highly diluted.  Wastewater treatment plants are regulated under the EPA, which ensures compliance with the Clean Water Act (1977). The legislation is concerned with the prevention of pollution, and therefore sets concentration limits on dissolved organic carbon (which is removed by the bacteria), nitrogen and phosphates – which cause eutrophication in receiving waters.


Another potential market for the proposed device would be the oil and natural gas industry.  In 2011, the US industry spent $12.9 billion to prevent, control, abate or eliminate environmental pollution; nearly $2.6 billion for water alone.  From 1990 through 2011, the industries environmental spend on water $50.7 billion for water.  (  Since one of the hallmarks of gas and oil spills is its effect on aquatic life, devices like the one being proposed would be ideally suited for monitoring the effect of oil and gas procurement on the local aquatic environment (ocean, lake, river, streams, etc.).


Contact for Further Information:  

Frank Urban, MS, CBA, BA.   email:   Phone (mobile): (734) 355-0730


Patent Information:
For Information, Contact:
Tech Transfer Staff
Wayne State University
Jeffrey Ram
Alice Hudder
Sifat Noman
Roxana Javid
Amar Basu