Aquaponics Club to Build Greenhouse
Issue   |   Wed, 02/18/2015 - 01:27
Eli Mansbach '18
The Aquaponics Club has the blueprint plans for building a soil-free, self-sustaining greenhouse on campus.

A student club recently received funding from the President’s Office to construct a self-sustaining, soil-free greenhouse by Valentine Dining Hall. The club, Hooked on Aquaponics, is co-founded by Pete Suechting ‘15, Jim Hall ’15 and Thais Correia ‘16.

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, which is the farming of aquatic animals, with hydroponics, a technique for growing plants without soil. The fundamental process behind aquaponics farming lies in repurposing fish waste into plant food.

“Bacteria in water take the ammonium in fish waste and turn them into nitrates and nitrites, which the plants need to grow,” Hooked on Aquaponics member Eli Mansbach ’18 said.

Additionally, the greenhouse allows for fish farming alongside its soil-less agriculture. While the project intends to initially use carp, a freshwater fish, future advancements in design may allow for tilapia and trout farms.

Originally, Suechting sought to introduce this project as a part of his environmental studies senior thesis. However, he said his adviser cautioned him that he would be limited by the one-year duration of his thesis and by his impending graduation.

As a result, Suechting reached out to students who shared his interest in the aquaponics system and eventually co-founded the club.

“It reminded me that Amherst is filled with incredible people with all sorts of hidden great skills,” Suechting said.

In the original conception of the project, the idea was to set up the greenhouse at the Book and Plow farm as a supplementary measure. To prevent burdening the farm employees, however, the club was created in order to convert the project into a student-run organization.

Currently, the club is solving logistical issues that range from generating publicity for potential new members to ordering the necessary materials for constructing the greenhouse. The greenhouse itself will likely be an ongoing project, passed down from senior members, with constant changes to improve the efficiency of the system.

“Things will come up even after we think that we’ve figured it out. It’s a process that keeps you humble, constantly tinkering for perfect sustainability,” Jim Hall ’15 said.

Once the funding gets allocated to the club, the club’s leaders expect construction of the aquaponics system to begin immediately. In addition to constructing the greenhouse, it is necessary to insulate the greenhouse and set up the electronic monitoring system.

“We think there are a lot of opportunities for research. Thais Correia ‘16 and Henry Laney ‘17 have designed an electronic monitoring system that will not only automate the system, but will also collect data on pH, temperature and other key factors,” Suechting said.

The basic design of the aquaponics greenhouse involves two fish tanks, which drain into a filtered, or sump, tank. The water will be pumped up into the top of the greenhouse to a sequencing valve, which will have six outputs to drain into the plant grow beds. The sequencing valve can be controlled to determine which grow beds receive the nitrogen-rich water.

Aquaponic systems surpass traditional agricultural methods in several regards. Theoretically, hydroponic systems conserve 90 percent more water than traditional agricultural methods. Aquaponic systems, in turn, conserve 90 percent more water than the hydroponic systems.

“Of course, that’s a loose generalization; all systems, aquaponic or traditional, are widely variable. Generally, though, aquaponic systems do well in the conservation of water,” Suechting said.

Depending on the plant, it can be possible to place twice as many plants per square foot as opposed to the configuration of traditional agriculture because the roots only grow downwards. In addition, aquaponic systems can grow year round and extend the overall plant growth time by increasing carbon dioxide levels.

The club is currently working towards establishing fish food as the only input into the aquaponics system. While a zero-input system has not been constructed before, the club’s leaders said that ideally all resources involved in the aquaponics greenhouse would become self-sustaining. Eventually solar panels would conserve energy, hydroponic filtration would conserve water and composted plant waste could be converted into fish food.

“There is endless potential here for manipulating the system, growing new plants or different fish, and finding out what happens,” Suechting said.

Furthermore the club plans to be financially self-sustaining: there are plans for the greenhouse’s produce and fish to be sold to Valentine Dining Hall.

Hall said that advances in aquaponics greenhouse efficiency can have influential effects in deserted urban areas. Abandoned buildings and factories can be converted into greenhouses to introduce local jobs and produce into urban dead zones. There would be no transportation costs and all produce would be organic, because pesticides and chemicals would not be used to facilitate plant growth.

While these advances are purely hypothetical, as zero-input systems are yet nonexistent, Hall said there is potential in the field of aquaponic agriculture.

“The end goal is perfect sustainability,” Hall said.

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