Fish + Food = Science of Aquaponics *
|Time Required||Very Long (1+ months)|
|Prerequisites||Read the following Science Buddies resource on Measuring Plant Growth|
|Material Availability||Readily available|
|Cost||Very High (over $150)|
|Safety||Use caution when using drills and power tools. Be sure to wear safety goggles. Adult supervision is required.|
Watching fish swim around a tank is not only a soothing activity, but (along with learning how to care for the aquarium inhabitants) it is also a good introduction to ichthyology, the study of fish. But having pet fish doesn't have to be a passive hobby; you can put those fish to work by helping to grow food for you and your family. How? By designing and building an aquaponics system.
Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture. Hydroponics is the science of growing plants without soil in nutrient-rich water. The nutrients are exactly tailored to nourish and meet the growth requirements of the plants. Plants need nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and a variety of micronutrients to thrive. Normally, in a hydroponics system, synthetic fertilizers added to the water provide all of these essential nutrients. Aquaculture is the breeding and farming of aquatic organisms, such as fish, crustaceans, and aquatic plants, usually for human consumption.
In an aquaponics system, the fish provide nutrients in the form of their "waste," or excrement. This waste contains nitrogen in the form of ammonia (too much of which can be toxic to fish), along with a variety of nutrients like phosphorus and potassium. Nitrifying bacteria that live in the gravel in the fish tank and on the tank walls convert the ammonia first into nitrites and then to nitrates. The water in the tank, which contains ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, phosphorus, potassium, and other micronutrients, is continuously pumped into a grow bed where the plants are located. The plants remove the nutrients from this water, and nitrifying bacteria in the grow bed (working together with the tank filter) clean the water by converting excess ammonia into nitrates, which plants use to grow. The clean water is then sent back into the fish tank. The grow bed and plants act as a biofilter, cleansing the water so that the fish remain healthy. In smaller, backyard aquaponics systems, the grow bed sits on top of the fish tank and the cleansed water from the grow bed drips back into the tank. In aquaponics, the fish, plants, and beneficial bacteria all depend on each other to live. Watch this video to learn more about commercial aquaponics.
Watch this video which discusses commercial aquaponics and the advantages of aquaponics.
What are some advantages of growing food in an aquaponics system? First, it is efficient, producing from one system both food with high protein content (fish) and food with vitamins and minerals (vegetables). Second, aquaponics is mostly a closed system regarding water consumption, because it uses recirculating water. This means it uses minimal water and can be set up in arid areas that don't have plentiful water. All that is required is food for the fish. Finally, aquaponics is a model for sustainable food production because it integrates hydroponics and aquaculture, meaning that it recycles all of the materials it uses. This is good for our environment because instead of feces-filled water being dumped into our water system and causing problems downstream, it is used to grow plants, is subsequently cleaned, and then recirculated through the fish tanks.
There are three primary methods for growing food aquaponically: the raft method, the nutrient film technique (or NFT), and the media-filled bed method. The raft method grows plants on boards (rafts) in tanks separate from the fish tank, where the raft supports the plants and the roots of the plants sit directly in the water. Water flows constantly from the fish tank, through filters, through the rafts, and then back to the fish tank. This method is used commercially, as shown in the video above, and the extra volume of water in the raft tank is a benefit as it provides a buffer for the fish so they are not stressed by possible water quality problems. With the nutrient film technique, instead of growing the plants in tanks with their roots submerged in the water, the NFT trickles a thin film of water over the roots of the plants, which are grown in narrow channels. This method is not used as heavily as the other two methods because it requires a biofilter to provide additional nitrifying bacteria. In the media-filled bed method, the plants grow in a box filled with a growth medium, such as perlite or gravel, on top of the fish tank. Water from the fish tank is pumped into the box and then percolates through the growth medium and back down into the fish tank. The kinds of plants that can be grown depend on the density of fish in the tank. Lettuce and herbs require low to medium nutrient levels, so they don't need a high density of fish, while fruiting plants like tomatoes have higher nutrient requirements and therefore need a higher density of fish to supply their nutrient needs.
In this environmental engineering science project you will design and build an aquaponics system using fish from your local pet store, like goldfish. Since this project deals with nonhuman vertebrate animals your science fair may require SRC approval. Review Science Buddies' Scientific Review Committee (SRC) page for additional tips. Read the first reference in the bibliography to learn one way (the media-filled bed method) to build an experimental system. Use the aquaponics system to grow lettuce and basil and compare their growth to plants grown conventionally in soil. Compare the area of the leaves and the root systems between the two methods. Is there a color difference between the roots? Do the roots have more root hairs grown either way? What differences do you observe? The guide to Measuring Plant Growth can help you design ways to evaluate whether aquaponics is a viable method for growing plants.
Michelle Maranowski, PhD, Science Buddies
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Last edit date: 2012-12-07
The following website gives detailed instructions on how to construct a backyard aquaponics system. In addition, there is lots valuable information on aquaponics including a frequently asked questions page.
- Nelson, R. (2012). Build a mini-aquaponics system. Aquaponics Journal. Retrieved March 26, 2012, from aquaponics.com/page/build-a-mini-aquaponic-system.
- Diver, S. (2006; updated by L. Rinehart, 2010). Aquaponics - Integration of hydroponics with aquaculture. Retrieved January 2, 2012, from www.extension.org/mediawiki/files/2/28/Hydroponics_with_Aquaculture.pdf
- Backyard Aquaponics. (n.d.). Basics. Retrieved January 2, 2012, from www.backyardaquaponics.com/information.html
- The Aquaponic Source. (2010, August 2). Aquaponics grow bed depth. The Aquaponics Gardening Blog. Retrieved January 9, 2012, from theaquaponicsource.com/2010/08/02/aquaponics-grow-bed-depth/
- OrganicNation. (2010). What is aquaponics? Vimeo. Retrieved March 26, 2012, from vimeo.com/6281618
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What was the most important thing you learned?
We learned to: (1) Build the barrelponics system. cost us under $1,000. About $770 to be exact, and we received $ 130 in materials donations (barrels, expanded shale for the grow media). It took about four weeks to build the system and five weeks to get it ready for the fish. build the system and ensure the fittings are water-tight; (2) make adjustments in the pipes so that the water flow is optimal; (3) cycle the system without the fish; (4) ensure the water is dechlorinated by keeping the water standing for at least two weeks; (5) practice water chemistry (pH, ammonia, nitrites and nitrates); (6) compose songs and music related to aquaponics, and learned basic elements of music composition program an arduino so it can communicate critical information about the system to our PC (this is still being worked on) We received a grant from Architecture for Humanity and their partners to build this project. A project like aquaponics is very engaging, and a lot of people in our community helped with the project.
What problems did you encounter?
We had several problems and resolved them. The leak in the flood tank was because we had drilled a hole through an uneven part of the tank. This was resolved by using a new barrel, and drilling a hole in the even part of the barrel. The water flow was too fast, and this was adjusted by adding weights to the flood valve One of the grow beds flooded too much, and this was adjusted by placing the pipes lower and at an angle. The pH was too low, and this was adjusted by adding a lot of ammonia The pump stopped working twice ? once because one of the pipes popped off and the system ran dry. The pump has to be replaced. The second time, the pump stopped and we are guessing because of debris. We added a filter to keep the debris out, and as the pump was under warranty were able to replace it without cost.
Can you suggest any improvements or ideas?
Improvements can be made in design, use of renewable energy to recirculate the water, cost and size of the system. There is so much to learn and experiment with. Final contest report can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0OOI2Ztwoo Other updates at: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/niskyponics Blog: www.niskyponics.blogspot.com Twitter: https://twitter.com/niskyponics
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Compared to a typical science class, please tell us how much you learned doing this project.
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If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
Aquacultural ManagerWalk by the supermarket's fresh fish counter and you will see a collection of marine ambassadors from around the world. You might see shrimp from Thailand, salmon from Canada, and flounder from the United States of America. Some of the fish is wild, caught by fishermen from the open seas; but these days, a lot of fish and shellfish is farm raised. Aquacultural managers direct operations on farms and fish hatcheries that cultivate ocean and freshwater fish for human consumption, recreation, and research. The field of aquacultural management is an example of biotechnology. It is the intersection of biology, chemistry, and cutting-edge technical equipment. Read more
Environmental EngineerEnvironmental engineers plan projects around their city or state—like municipal water systems, landfills, recycling centers, or sanitation facilities—that are essential to the health of the people who live there. Environmental engineers also work to minimize the impact of human developments, like new roads or dams, on environments and habitats, and they strive to improve the quality of our air, land, and water. Read more
Food Scientist or TechnologistThere is a fraction of the world's population that doesn't have enough to eat or doesn't have access to food that is nutritionally rich. Food scientists or technologists work to find new sources of food that have the right nutrition levels and that are safe for human consumption. In fact, our nation's food supply depends on food scientists and technologists that test and develop foods that meet and exceed government food safety standards. If you are interested in combining biology, chemistry, and the knowledge that you are helping people, then a career as a food scientist or technologist could be a great choice for you! Read more
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