Imperial College London

How hydroponics plus aquaculture adds up to more than the sum of its parts

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How hydroponics plus aquaculture adds up to more than the sum of its parts

Professor Guy Woodward introduces an exciting new initiative that could breathe new life into a 1,000-year old technology.

When Professor Guy Woodward commissioned 100 plastic research ponds from Ponds4fish Limited, a specialist Manchester-based company, neither could have predicted quite how far the collaboration would take them.

The Professor and Christopher Mason, a design engineer with 36 years experience in developing new products, had been very interested in aquaponics for the past six years. They got talking about their relative specialisms and came up with a plan – to develop the ancient practice of aquaponics for the 21st Century.

“Christopher's design aims to create a miniature eco-system where waste from fish is fed to plants and excess plant material is fed back to the fish” says Guy. “It’s a highly efficient way to maximise food yields while minimising energy use.”

Aquaponics explained

Aquaponics is a mix of hydroponics (growing plants in water) and aquaculture (fish farming):

“Our aim is to create a miniature eco-system where waste from fish is fed to plants and excess plant material is fed back to the fish. It’s a highly efficient way to maximise food yields while minimising energy use.”

– Guy Woodward

Professor of Ecology, Silwood Park campus

“It’s been practiced by the Chinese for hundreds if not thousands of years in outdoor ponds”, explains Professor Woodward: “It’s a very efficient way to create a high amount of protein with very little waste.”

The significant innovation being pioneered by Professor Woodward and Christopher Mason is a modular system based on shipping containers.

“A big advantage of shipping containers is ease of transportation”, explains Professor Woodward: “The infrastructure is already there to export them; even the larger military helicopters are equipped to carry them, which means they can be dropped in areas of food security crisis, where there is a locust plague, a flood or a drought, for example. They’re also ideal for conflict zones too, as they’re already armoured. If you want to scale up to a bigger system, you just bolt the containers together, a bit like a Lego house.”

From prototype to practical solution

With such a system, it is possible to produce an on-going supply of fresh fish, such as tilapia or brown trout, and salad crops, such as lettuce. And with solar power they could even run off-grid.

The system could make a huge difference to an area oppressed by famine, and to the aid agencies who need to feed a large amount of people in places where natural resources are scarce.

The next steps

The team now needs to prove that the prototype works in practice. They are seeking funding to test two demo units; one at Imperial’s Silwood Park Campus and another at a remote site in Africa, most likely in Ghana where the team already has connections. If this proves successful, they would then look to develop a course at Imperial to train people in running these units, so the approach can be rolled out as widely as possible.

As Professor Woodward explains; “Imperial has a long history of using applied ecology to meet human need; for example, to boost food production during and after the Second World War. It would be wonderful to carry forward this tradition by making progress in aquaponics and I would be very happy to talk to anyone with philanthropic interests who would like to help.”

As a first step, please contact Patrick Stewart, Head of Development for the Faculty of Natural Sciences, on +44 (0) 20 7594 2667 or by email to patrick.stewart@imperial.ac.uk.

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Jenn Rowater
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Imogen Ashfield

Imogen Ashfield
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