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Economic Sustainability of Large-scale Aquaponics Subject of University Research

Economic Sustainability of Large-scale Aquaponics Subject of University Research

February 8, 2016 |

Maize High School in suburban Wichita, Kansas features an extensive hydroponics program. (photo courtesy of Jay Super/Maize High School)

(Photo courtesy of Jay Super/Maize High School)

Two years ago Claude Galipeault approached Georgia’s Armstrong State University Biology Department head Matthew Draud with a novel research idea: testing the economic sustainability of aquaponics.

Draud’s curiosity was piqued and he decided to visit Galipeault to check out his aquaponic system, which he had constructed in his basement.

“I quickly identified with his mission – it was focused on inventing technologies to make aquaponic systems more economically sustainable,” Draud says. “Since that meeting, I brought the idea of a collaboration to university officials, who were supportive assuming I could find the funding. I discovered that The Forum Group Charitable Foundation had funds dedicated to research into the profitability of aquaponics systems and eventually secured a $100,000 donation to support our project.”

The Forum Group Charitable Foundation chose to donate money to the aquaponics facility because its overall goal is to discover if aquaponics is profitable on a commercial scale. “They believe that we can help them discover the answer to this question,” says Draud.

Currently, students and faculty from the University are involved in the aquaponics project. 

“There are about a half-dozen faculty who have specifically identified interest in conducting research in the facility,” Draud says. “There is also money set aside to support their students in conducting their own independent projects.”

Thus far, those involved in the project are working to develop technologies and practices that reduce energy costs associated with heating and cooling of water and the pumping of water. Work is also being done to identify how to increase the efficiency of liquid and solid waste streams, as well as reducing the need to dump nutrients due to pH imbalance or over-nutrification. Finally, research on optimizing LED lighting for cost-efficiency is also underway.

These goals will likely remain the project’s main focus over the next three to five years. “We certainly plan a phase two project, which will implement the technologies and strategies discovered in phase one into a large-scale pilot system.”

The team has decided to use a greenhouse as its facility, which is already built. 

“It is 138 feet by 34 feet,” Draud says. “The final touches, including solar installation, backup generator, etc., should be installed soon. The fish systems have been completed and will be installed along with the grow beds.”

“Aquaponics to date has largely been a hobby, even when attempted on a larger scale,” says Draud. “It works. You can certainly tie the growth of plants to the waste stream of aquatic organisms, but to my knowledge, nobody has developed a commercially viable aquaponics system at a large scale. The only companies that report a real profit are those that are selling systems. Nobody is reporting a commercially viable long-term venture selling greens, produce, fish, or any product.”

Draud’s desire is to develop technologies that can make aquaponics profitable on a large scale because he thinks that soil-based agriculture is simply not sustainable in the long run.

“I believe that aquaponic systems are a real solution to a real problem. If we can figure out how to reduce the energy costs associated with these systems, manage the nutrient streams more efficiently and incorporate these systems into vertical urban farms in multistory buildings we will have discovered a much more environmentally friendly way to feed ourselves.”

Eventually, the university plans to publish its work in peer-reviewed venues where the wider public can take advantage of what is discovered.

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