How Two IIT Scientists Are Using Food Waste To Revolutionize Indoor Farming

How Two IIT Scientists Are Using Food Waste To Revolutionize Indoor Farming

Mary Byrne

10/18/16 @10:28am in Tech

Two scientists at Illinois Institute of Technology may have solved one of the biggest inefficiencies in aquaponic farming -- the abundant use of energy that it requires.

Elena Timofeeva, a research professor in chemistry, and John Katsoudas, a senior research associate in physics, have developed a system that uses organic food waste -- rather than electricity -- to generate a mobile, containerized aquaponics farm that will bring locally produced food to food-poor areas while also cutting down on the pollution that contributes to global warming. The team was recently selected as a semi-finalist in the 2016 Cleantech Open Accelerator Program, which identifies promising early-stage clean technology companies and provides them with six months of educational and mentoring support. Now, they're working with Cleantech adviser on market research, business strategy and fundraising, and they plan to have the full-scale prototype finished in the next 18 months.

The two explained that in a traditional aquaponics farm, the fish in the tank produce waste that is converted into a natural fertilizer for the plants. In turn, the plants keep the water clean for the fish. It's a system that requires about 80 percent less water than traditional farming, Katsoudas said.

However, it's not a perfect system. There are at least two popular methods of aquaponics farming -- completely enclosed units where artificial light is brought in to do year-round growing or operating one within a greenhouse. In both cases, energy is consumed for the electricity, heating or cooling of the enclosed environment.

"[Aquaponic farming] has really started to take off now in the modern age because of the stresses being put on the environment. From increased farming to increased population density,  it’s been identified [that] the production model for food needs to change," Katsoudas said. "The problems with aquaponics ... is that they consume a lot of energy. What AquaGrow Technology does is [identify] a way to bring in bio-digestion."

Biodigestion is where food waste, which comes from outside sources like cafeterias, food processing plants, food banks or anywhere else organic waste is generated and destined for landfills, comes into play, Katsoudas said.

"[Food waste] is introduced into the biodigester through an external chute and then over the period of  about 21 days it's converted into methane," he later explained in an email to Chicago Inno. "We then pipe that methane into an electric generator and produce electricity and CO2. The electricity is what we use to power the aquaponics systems, i.e. the grow lights, heaters, pumps, air conditioners, control systems, life support for the fish, etc. The byproduct of generating electricity using methane is CO2."

Simply put, the aquaponics farm that Timofeeva and Katsoundas have developed replaces electricity with organic food waste as the energy source for the lights and other technologies that support the system.

The other key difference to their system is the size, according to Timofeeva. The container will come to a total size of 10 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 45 feet tall.

"[The size] also enables smaller players -- like individual families, individual churches, individual communities -- to get into this farming locally," she said. "If it’s a huge farm, you need a large investment to get involved in this. Having a containerized farm that can be located in small plots of land would enable local farming and engaging pops in farming as well."

They estimated that the cost of such a unit would come to about $150k, and it would produce an annual profit of $40-$80k, depending on the plant or crop harvested.

"The investment [an individual family] would make would pay back in 2-3 years," Timofeeva said. "They can locally produce food and make money off of it ... It works really well economically … by minimizing operational expenses on site."

Katsoudas also said that the mobility of these containers would prove especially useful in communities after national disasters where there is no access to food, or in underserved urban communities

"We have to believe that when there’s a good investment made, there will be resources available to make it," he said. "When you look at the nature of the grants coming out, there is a whole new movement of grant money that's coming to bear for social impact."

He explained that there is a direct correlation between the level of crime in an urban area, and the amount of nutritional food in that area.

"You look at the dollars that society spends on police forces and incarceration ... If you were able to bring the crime down but supplying a nutritional value, an asset to the local community, those are dollars better spent.," he said, explaining that after obtaining grants, ministries, congregations and social organizations would likely be the first adopters of their aquaponics farm.

"I think that’s a good investment," he said. "I do believe there are organizations and people that will see that."

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