While some Pitt students struggle to keep their houseplants alive, sophomore Vinh Luong and his team are using a school of fish and a shipping container to grow an entire farm.
In March, Luong, a computer science major, and his project partner Joe DiPietro, a sophomore actuarial sciences major, won $10,000 in seed funds from the Betaburgh competition to fund a self-sufficient mini farm that uses fish farming to grow plants.
In their presentation at BetaBurgh, a competition that ended up funding the project, the duo explained how downtown Pittsburgh is a food desert, meaning it has no local sources of fresh produce. Luong and DiPietro saw aquaponic — the use of fish to grow food — as a way to bring fresh leafy greens to an urban area.
When Luong arrived at Pitt in 2015, he realized that not many people had ever heard of aquaponics and decided to put his entrepreneurial passion to the test.
“I wanted to create a system to not only educate people about aquaponics but also build these systems throughout Pittsburgh so that people could actually benefit from them,” Luong said.
The group houses their project in a 16 by 20 foot structure, built by Sipes and Sons General Contractors, that resembles a shipping container. The system filters out the solid particles of the fish waste from the water they live in, and uses bacteria to transform the ammonia-rich water into nitrate-rich water. This nitrate-rich water is then ported over to the roots of the plants, providing them with the nutrients they need to grow.
Though Luong and his team still have to feed the fish, the system is otherwise self-sufficient.
The entire installation is outdoors — Luong, DiPietro and their team will move the crate on Friday from its construction location in Polish Hill to its permanent Downtown location at Stanwix Street and Penn Avenue.
Luong and DiPietro’s funds came from the BetaBurgh competition sponsored by the BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania. The competition was created as a part of the Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership, which aims to support and implement new business ideas that will help the community and engage downtown Pittsburgh residents.
For DiPietro, the thrill of the project lies in the enthusiastic responses he gets when he talks about his work.
“Watching how excited people get about aquaponics and something that I am creating is definitely the best part,” DiPietro said.
The steel fish tank sits at the base of the portable farm system and houses about 300 tilapia. The system filters the fish water and converts it into nitrate-rich water, which is pumped up to the wooden greenhouse through irrigation tubes and over to the towers of the farm.
The towers hold the roots of the plants, so as the water runs through it provides the plants with the nourishment they need to prosper. The aquaponics portable farm is expected to produce about 1,000 plants every month. Luong and his team will start by growing basil plants, but hope to expand to growing lettuce as well.
An aquaponics farming system uses 90 percent less water, 70 percent less energy and can produce 10 times the amount of food in the same amount of space as a traditional plant farming model.
According to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, corn and soybeans together accounted for over 51 percent of all harvested cropland, a statistic Luong uses to argue that aquaponic farms could diversify food production in the United States.
“The way the food system is setup now, it is inherently going to fail,” Luong said. “It is important that we move away from producing just two things and start producing a more diverse array of produce.”
Beyond the physical aquaponics project, Luong and his team also proposed an interface called Aquacloud as a way to help farmers digitally monitor the pH, temperature and air quality of their aquaponics farm. He entered this proposal into the Blast Furnace student startup accelerator competition hosted by the Innovation Institute at Pitt.
Babs Carryer, the director of education and outreach for the Innovation Institute, said the Institute aims to give students advice on how to create a successful startup, as well as provide networking opportunities and funding through competitions.
For Luong’s team, who won first place at the Blast Furnace competition in June, that support meant an additional $1500 to fuel the next stage of their aquaponics project. Carryer said she and her colleagues at the Institute were surprised and impressed Luong’s team won the competition, since they had only just completed their first undergraduate year.
The Institute, Carryer said, urges students to pursue realistic and achievable projects such as Luong’s.
“We want to support and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship for all students at all levels,” Carryer said.
Luong has no doubt implementing the aquaponics portable farm will be a learning process, because the entire system is dependent on living organisms, which tend to be fickle. Despite this, Luong, a self-described “ideas guy,” said this project has captured his interest more than any of his other ideas.
“[It] would just be idea after idea, week after week,” Luong said. “I didn’t really have anything that I was super passionate about yet. But then aquaponics came along.”