Read More UMBC News Blog Stories

June 24, 1999


Baltimore -Bilge water. It is the stinky, sticky scourge of boat owners and captains everywhere and a threat to the environment. But thanks to the Bilge Pill, a new product born from a unique partnership between an area waterman and Baltimore-based biotech company Athena Environmental Sciences, dealing with smelly, oily and polluting bilge on the Chesapeake Bay has gotten a lot easier.

Mike Harris has been on the water all his life and is currently a charter boat captain at the Chesapeake Beach Rod and Reel Restaurant and Tackle Shop. Back in 1991 he watched the constant, sticky oil slicks produced by boats pumping bilge into the still waters of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. He wondered about the environmental and aesthetic damage the slicks caused (the dumping practice has since been declared illegal) and if there was a way to make watermen's lives easier while making the Bay cleaner.

That day Harris began a quest for the holy grail of bilge water solutions: a product that transformed the stagnant, dirty seawater and oil mixture that leaks or seeps into the bottom of a boat's hull into something inoffensive to both the environment and the senses.

Harris had seen captains use dishwashing liquid to instantly disperse diesel fuel spills on the water before and wanted to replicate the crude technique's rapid results on bilge. However, his research showed that this method was both environmentally harmful and illegal.

A friend referred him to Bill Jones, Ph.D., a Senior Scientist at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute's Center of Marine Biotechnology. Jones and his business partner Dr. Sheldon Broedel, are co-founders (President and CEO respectively) of Athena Environmental Sciences, a biotech company specializing in commercialization of advanced technologies for environmental markets.

Athena is located in the UMBC Technology Center, the same building where Broedel once worked for Martin Marietta Laboratories. Broedel and Jones are graduates of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and have assembled an impressive team of research and business talent at Athena that includes full-time Ph.D.'s and part-time students from the nearby UMBC campus.

After much research, the Bilge Pill was created: a fast acting, biodegradable, non-toxic cleaning agent that works continuously to break down bilge petroleum build-up in salt or fresh water. The hockey-puck-shaped pill is placed in a mesh bag, then submerged and secured in the deepest area of the bilge. There the rocking motion of regular boating provides suitable agitation for the cleaning action, lasting 60 days.

The pill contains biodegradable surfactants and emulsifiers, which promote formation of a stable emulsion. The process in effect breaks the oil down into tiny micro droplets rendering the oil less toxic and more degradable.

The next step was field-testing. Jones ventured to the Baltimore Inner Harbor for the Bilge Pill's trial by fire: the decades of oily, built-up bilge deep inside the hull of the 133-foot Lightship Chesapeake.

Before the dawn of automated beacons, lightships like the Chesapeake were a common sight along Maryland shores. The helpful ships marked channel entrances, warned of navigation hazards, provided weather information and assisted with rescue operations. Built in 1933, the Chesapeake's long career has ranged from its original duties, to WWII harbor patrols, and finally its current role as a living classroom at the Baltimore Maritime Institute.

The boat, anchored next to the Baltimore Aquarium, is a fixture of the Inner Harbor and a National Historic Landmark. But despite years of trying different methods to clean the ship's bilge, nothing had worked and hazardous materials specialists had to be called in to treat it regularly.

Jones worked with Maritime Institute staff to install 20 Bilge Pills along the boat's keel and documented the results on videotape and film. "The results were amazing," said Jones. "It was clearly working within 24 hours," said Broedel. Years of built-up oil dissolved within one week. After two weeks, the formerly toxic bilge was ready to be discharged.

Once the Bilge Pill had been tested, Harris worked out a commercialization agreement with Athena and formed a company to sell his idea: Bilge Tech, Inc., based in Maryland. Now that Harris' brainchild has been made reality by Athena's know-how, he's beginning to market the product nationwide.

He hopes that the eco-friendly pill will be a hit with boaters and captains everywhere. The EPA is keeping an encouraging eye on the product as well, hoping that its promising results will be duplicated in larger statistical samples as it sells to boaters tired of dealing with the toxic drudgery of bilge clean-up. The U.S. Coast Guard has also expressed interest in using Bilge Pills for its fleet.

Note: For more information on the Bilge Pill, contact Chuck Quinlan at 410-286-0170.

# # #

Posted by dwinds1 at June 24, 1999 12:00 AM