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.|
How are we going to feed the more than 9 billion people that will live on Earth by 2050? This is a major question for farmers, ranchers, and food scientists around the globe. It's a big problem, considering that from 2017 to 2050 we will be adding 1.5 billion people and need 20% more food. Linked to this problem of producing enough food is having enough land, water, and other natural resources to make that happen. The final solution will surely be made up of many different approaches working together —aquaponics may be one part of the final solution.
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 other micronutrients to thrive. Normally, in a hydroponics system, synthetic (manufactured) fertilizers added to the water provide these essential nutrients. Aquaculture is the breeding and farming of aquatic organisms, such as fish, shellfish, 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 which the plants can use. 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.
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 success story from Pentair, a manufacturer of commercial solutions for aquaponics, shows pictures and data detailing the sustainability of two aquaponic farms.
There are three primary methods for aquaponics: 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, 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. As a proof-of-principle you can chose to use fish from your local pet store, like goldfish, rather than trying to find a source of edible fish. Since this project deals with nonhuman vertebrate animals (fish) your science fair may require SRC approval. Review Science Buddies' Scientific Review Committee (SRC) page for additional tips. To get started, you will need to read up on aquaponics and look at systems other people have built. Your project can focus on just the engineering of your home aquaponics system, or you can take it a step further by growing your own produce (lettuce is a good choice) in an aquaponics system compared to a soil-based system. This will allow you to compare many things including how the crop grows in each farming method, cost of each system, amount of water and fertilizer used in each system, or any other variable you can think of! The Science Buddies guide to Measuring Plant Growth can help you design ways to evaluate how well your plants grow.
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Last edit date: 2017-05-10
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 March 9, 2017, from attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=56
- Backyard Aquaponics. (n.d.). Basics. Retrieved March 9, 2017, from www.backyardaquaponics.com/guide-to-aquaponics/what-is-aquaponics/
- PBS News Hour. (2015). Aquaponic farming saves water, but can it feed the country? YouTube. Retrieved May 9, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqjHT8MFSow
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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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If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
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