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Whatcom engineers create dredging technology honored as ‘most innovative design’

David Dibley lowers the Slurry Pulsejet Engine into a tank for submerged testing in a slurry tank. MAZDAK INTERNATIONAL INC.

Posted on September 21, 2022

Mazdak International in Sumas has developed a new way to dredge bodies of water, one that should remain relatively inexpensive even as water gets deeper.

The Slurry Pulsejet Engine prototype was developed by Baha Abulnaga for ocean mining, but converted for dredging to compete in the “Guardians of the Reservoir Challenge” hosted by the Bureau of Reclamation in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

David Dibley was hired by Mazdak after the first phase of the challenge. Other staff was hired as needed, such as welders and special technicians. The company is funded in part through a grant from the National Science Foundation, but gets most of its funding through general engineering consulting.

Dredging is a process used to remove sediment buildup from the bottoms of bodies of water such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Buildup occurs naturally over time, and can cause problems such as blocking hydroelectric dams and flooding bodies of water.

Dibley and Abulnaga said they would love to try out their design in the Nooksack river, however, getting the permits could easily take years. The Bellingham Herald previously reported on the difficulties of getting permission to dredge. Ironically, flooding delayed Mazdak’s project for three months when the Nooksack River flooded last winter.


Traditionally, dredging is done using a crane and a specialized bucket called a “clamshell.” The concept is simple — pull out the extra sediment from the bottom of the river, lake or reservoir using the bucket. However, this process becomes more expensive the deeper the water as better equipment is needed.

Mazdak’s Slurry Pulsejet Engine is designed to dredge deep waters without too much of a price hike. It sits on the bottom of a body of water and uses an internal combustion engine of air and propane to fire a liquid piston that pushes the sediment up and out of the water through a pipe.

The Bureau of Reclamation challenge was three phases over two years. After each phase, teams were eliminated and those that moved on were granted cash prizes to work on their projects. The final winner, awarded a prize of $100,000, was a team from Germany that had developed technology to automate the standard dredging process.

While Mazdak did not win the challenge, it was one of the top three finalists out of nearly 100 teams internationally. Mazdak did win the prize for the most innovative design.

“I think we did a good job… we are disappointed we didn’t get the money. To be honest, if this competition was limited to U.S. companies, I am sure we would have won the prize,” Abulnaga said in a telephone interview with The Bellingham Herald.

Abulnaga said the German team was able to get a barge and practice its design in the water, however Mazdak was simply not funded to the same level. It has never actually tested the design outside the lab, although it was able to simulate the water pressure to a depth of 200 feet and it functioned correctly.

The Slurry Pulsejet Engine would remove sediments from deep reservoirs and pump them to an intermediary barge feeding a slurry pipeline around the dam in this image from designer Mazdak International Inc. Mazdak International Inc.


Abulnaga said they are looking at other locations around the country that could use their technology, however they need a financial backer before they can really get started.

“We really need to find someone to back us financially because we really are a small research facility here, it is going to take a lot of money for us to go full size,” Abulnaga said. “So we are going to start knocking on doors.”

However, if Mazdak cannot find funding to pursue dredging, it will likely return to focusing on development for ocean mining.

“Our technology would be very good for ocean mining,” Abulnaga said. “If it takes time to convince the owners of the reservoirs to do the dredging, we are going to be focusing our lab on ocean mining, because we have to survive.”



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