PITTSBURGH (AP) — A shipping container near the Gateway T station Downtown is a Tiny House — but for tilapia. A 160-square-foot demonstration project, it will be in place until Oct. 31 to promote aquaponics as a model of urban farming that uses little energy and little space to create lots of food.
The Aquaponics Project is a partnership between aquaponics students at the University of Pittsburgh and the Door Campaign, with $22,000 in funding, $10,000 of it from the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s BetaBurgh program. BetaBurgh rewards local, entrepreneurial startups that enliven public spaces. Sipes & Son was the general contractor.
Starting in November and over the next year, Pitt students will work on the aquaponics lab to make it the most efficient environment they can, said Vinh Luong, a sophomore in computer science and an aquaponics advocate.
Each harvest, based on the weight of lettuce, should reap 12 pounds of produce and various numbers of fish for food every five to six months, he said.
The Door Campaign’s founder, Quincy Swatson, hopes to use the Pitt data to replicate systems on a larger scale as a social enterprise to sell fish and produce to restaurants.
A 25-year-old Manchester native, Swatson started the Door Campaign in 2013 to introduce city youth to aquaponics as an entrepreneurial opportunity and aquaponics curriculum to teach science, technology, engineering and math.
Instructors at Chatham University, Duquesne University and Allegheny College helped him introduce aquaponics curricula to three Propel schools and six Pittsburgh Public Schools. Each class has a 20-gallon system.
Swatson is talking with city officials to secure the decommissioned Manchester pool to expand the project, which would train and hire neighborhood youth.
“This container project is exciting because it is a model” that shows aquaponics in action, he said. “One of the difficulties has been explaining to funders what aquaponics is and how it can be used in education and social enterprise.”
The container is two stories. The top part is a greenhouse with Plexiglass sides that are lined with cylinders that have angled notches cut into them. In each notch is a little basket that holds clumps of basil or lettuce.
The fish swim in a large barrel on the first floor. A pumping system sends their solid waste to the bottom. Three solar panels power the pumps.
“A lot of small clay pellets in the barrel are very porous and the pores allow bacteria to grow and the bacteria converts the ammonia into nitrites which are converted into nitrates,” Luong said.
That water will be pumped upstairs to drip through each tower to feed the plants. A gutter will catch the nutrient water that drains for reuse, he said.
“The reason I worked so hard on this is because I truly believe it can have an impact on the world,” Luong said. “Vertical farming can be what we do more of in the future. When we see our plants growing, it is one of the most enlightening things, and we want to spread that.”