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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Atlanta’s Bioponica Seeks to Close Loop on Hydroponic and Aquaponic Farming

February 2, 2012 |

The term sustainable farming has been creeping steadily into the vernacular, popping up in business plans, on food blogs, and at local farmers’ markets around the country. David Epstein, D.O. and Kenneth Lovell, P.E. of Bioponica™ hope to usher new farmers into the world of sustainable agriculture through their unique design and method of soilless, closed-loop, farming. 

Epstein and Lovell were first introduced over dinner a few years back. Lovell’s stepdaughter worked at Epstein’s personal care distribution company and just knew that her father-in-law and the holistic doctor would hit it off. Lovell, a former naval officer and civil engineer, had built a hydroponic greenhouse in Alabama in the 1970s. Epstein, an osteopath interested in nutrition, had developed the aquaponic “Farm-in-a Box” aquarium aquaponic system and was trying to figure out how to scale it up when he met Lovell. By the time dessert was served, it was clear that the two would become business partners, and soon, Bioponica™ was born.

Incubators, Biogardens and Food Plants

At the heart of Bioponica™, an alternative approach to soilless farming, are two patent pending modules: the Incubator™, an organic liquid fertilizer and fish food producing module; and the Biogarden™, a module developed to make ideal use of space with vertical stacking of plant beds above fish tanks. These modules can be combined to form a greenhouse scale Food Plant™, or integrated growing operation that grows plants in deep water culture, ebb and flow, or nutrient film technique (NFT).


Epstein and Lovell say that a Bioponica Food Plant, through its ability to integrate rainwater collection, small or large scale anaerobic digesters, vermiculture systems as well as fish and duckweed, creates a living ecosystem of self-derived plant nutrients sufficient to grow even the heaviest feeding plants such as tomatoes and other flowering and fruiting plants.

By recycling food waste and green manures the Incubator™ and Biogarden™ modules create a fertilizer factory for the plants and duckweed. Through this process green manures convert to a liquid digestate that further processes to fertilizer through an in-line, low-tech stage of clarification and biofiltration.

In a nutshell, here’s how the company’s Incubator™ and Biogarden™ modules create fertilizer: Food waste or “green manure” is broken down anaerobically in onsite bioreactor tanks to extract nutrients from the decomposing plants. Nutrient-rich liquids are separated from solids through clarification. Then, through biofiltration and nitrification, which occurs through rock media or on the roots of duckweed, ammonia is converted to plant available nitrates. The water containing the nutrients then moves through media beds or nutrient film technique (NFT) and deep-water troughs, the plants consume the nutrients in turn filtering the water and the cycle continues. According to Bioponica, the process eliminates the need for mined phosphates or petroleum derived fertilizers. The only external inputs that the system requires are rainwater and fresh source of waste.

Flow schematic of the Bioponica Food Plant

Bioponics

Epstein and Lovell have appropriately dubbed their approach to farming, bioponics. They tout bioponics as a new system that not only improves upon traditional hydroponic soilless growing methods in that it does not require external chemical inputs, but also aquaponics in that the system doesn’t require fish to act as the sole source of plant fertilizer in the system.

According to the two founders hydroponic farmers typically enrich water in their systems with chemical or organic fertilizers that must be purchased from specialty stores. Epstein and Lovell explained that the Bioponica method is almost completely self-contained allowing farmers to produce all the necessary nutrients from abundantly available resources. According to the company, yard waste, food waste, and even human urine can be introduced into the system to provide nutrients to take the place of store bought nitrogen, phosphates and minerals.

While Bioponica’s processes and systems are similar to aquaponics, they are unique in that they do not require fish to fertilize the growing beds. The self-contained systems instead provide naturally supplemented and fish-safe fertilizers.

According to Epstein, “aquaponic systems rely on an internal system of fish to exclusively provide fertilizer, yet maintaining fish can be a cumbersome challenge”  as fish do not produce sufficient complete nutrients through their urine to sustain nutrient demand of many crops. He says the Bioponica™ process and systems are similar to aquaponics with naturally derived, fish-safe, plant fertilizers.

The company’s clients include entrepreneurs looking to get involved in the next generation of farming technology, high school and university educators, non-profit growers, and produce sellers including grocers and restaurants. Epstein and Lovell offer assistance in selecting crops and matching available forms of waste to the desired crops. They also help prospective users of their systems determine just how much kudzu, grass, or if you’re feeling adventurous, human urine will be needed to sustain the desired crops.

Clients can choose from a range of self-contained farming systems from a $1,200, 20-square foot module suitable for back porch hobbyists or a student grow lab to a $6,500, large-scale, three tier vertical growing system with upper level beds, two mid level deep-water fish or biofilter/clarifier/duckweed troughs, and two large fish tanks, which cycle nutrients from bottom to top and back again.

Over the next few years Epstein and Lovell plan to grow their business through licensing or franchising their designs and processes.

Currently, Bioponica is registered as a for-profit venture, though is exploring the possibility of becoming a social enterprise.

By teaching their approach and proving their concept, the two hope one day to revolutionize an approach to farming that is practical.

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