July 31, 2014 12:00 am JST

Kurita goes back to sea with ballast-water management system

TOKYO -- Kurita Water Industries will be returning to its maritime roots next fiscal year with a system for ballast water treatment -- a process mandated for world-traveling freight vessels to protect local ecosystems.

     Kurita's system is unique in that it treats the ballast water using only chemicals -- no filtering needed. The structurally simple system can be retrofitted to vessels in dry dock in half the usual time, just the bait, Kurita hopes, to snag hundreds of millions of dollars in sales during the first 10 years.

     For decades, international shipping has disrupted local ecosystems. Aquatic lifeforms come in with water taken on as ballast and go out when it is discharged, often ending up in far-flung areas they would never have otherwise reached.

     Recognizing the ecological havoc that invasive aquatic organisms in ballast water can cause, the International Maritime Organization adopted the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments (BWM) in 2004.

     More than 30 countries representing over 35% of global shipping tonnage have now signed on to the BWM Convention, which mandates that ships install systems to clean their ballast water.

     Japan was slow to get on board but finally gave parliamentary approval to the convention in June.

Simply does it

The system developed by Kurita Water Industries uses mainly chlorine-based chemicals to kill plankton and microorganisms. The company has already obtained basic approval from the IMO for the system and expects to win final approval this fiscal year through March 2015, together with so-called type approval from Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

     The system is the culmination of work that began with inquiries in late 2010. The company met with ship owners and operators to investigate possible water-treatment technologies and found that what everyone wanted was a system that did not use filters.

     There are a number of ways to treat ballast water using chemicals, ultraviolet radiation and the like, but most include filtering as a first step to remove aquatic organisms. The electrical work and maintenance that goes along with these systems often means repair costs for owners and lost business opportunities for operators that add up to between 1 million yen and 2 million yen ($9,821 and $19,642) a day.

     Because Kurita's system has relatively few components, it can be installed in around half the time of filter systems. Given the limited number of dry docks for the tens of thousands of ships in service around the world, this is good news for the numerous vessels in need of a retrofit to comply with the BWM Convention.

     What is more, the system is flexible and can accommodate a possible future tightening of regulations by simply adjusting the amounts of added chemicals. The chemical agents are all designated food additives, so if there is a spill there is little worry about safety. And because it is a water treatment company that handles both chemicals and equipment, Kurita can respond in an integrated fashion if problems arise.

At sea again

This business represents a return of sorts for the company, which got its start in 1949 selling chemicals for ship boilers. Two years later it also began handling water treatment systems for ships, but it had difficultly differentiating itself technologically, so it gradually made the transition to land.

     Regaining its sea legs after a hiatus of decades proved difficult. One obvious challenge was the fact that ships rock and sway. Additionally, the equipment requires a different layout than equipment in factories, and with no water-treatment specialists aboard, ships' crews must be able to safely operate the systems themselves.
 
     The BWM Convention requires the use of approved ballast water management systems, but the IMO only reviews these systems once every eight months, so companies like Kurita have only a limited window for development work.

     "We've gotten this far thanks to the help of shipbuilders, dry dock-related concerns and government agencies," one Kurita manager said.

     Once Kurita obtains final approval from the IMO, it will be positioned to capture part of a market that is set to explode. Market research firm Fuji Keizai estimates that global demand for ballast water treatment will grow fourteenfold in just two years from 2013 levels to reach 440 billion yen in 2015.

(Nikkei)