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Engineer researches sustainable agriculture practice

February 28th, 2015 Posted in Opinion

A Utah State University environmental engineer is hoping his research in aquaponics might someday help developing-world communities build sustainable agriculture systems.

Aquaponics is a rising trend in agriculture that uses the waste products of fish to provide fertilizer for plants. Those same plants then put out bacteria that purify the fish’s water.

“Fish poop and that feeds the plants. The plants clean the water for the fish, so you don’t need filters,” said Nathan Coonen, who is researching aquaponics in a greenhouse on Utah State University’s Innovation Campus.

“I think of it as mimicking a natural system,” said Ryan Dupont, a professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University.

After a trip to Irapuato, Mexico, Coonen realized there might be a possible aquaponics application in the developing world.

“The end goal is to implement it in developing countries through non-government organizations,” Coonen said.

“There are a variety of reasons why something like that would work well in a small community of 200 or so people,” Dupont said.

“We want a simple model that works but doesn’t take a lot of high level chemistry knowledge,” Coonen said.

Coonen has grown a variety of plants and vegetables in his aquaponics system including kale, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers.

“Most plants work,” Coonen said.

Coonen uses regular goldfish.

“I would expect the system to last for maybe 20 years,” Coonen said. “As long as it’s maintained.”

Maintenance involves monitoring chemical levels and the physical upkeep of the system, Coonen said.

“We measure the pH, salinity, nitrate, nitrite and ammonia levels in the water,” Coonen said.

Traditional pest control methods can’t be used because introducing pesticide would kill the fish, Coonen said.

To keep plants safe he uses parasitic wasps and sticky traps.

The prototype has been going for about year and a half, Coonen said.

“Certainly there’s huge potential,” Dupont said. “Aquaponics is typically used for waste treatment, but could potentially be adapted.”

Shelby Ruud, Kristen Steiner, Thomas Sorenson, Parker Atkinson and Ethan Trunnell contributed to this report.


  1. One Response to “Engineer researches sustainable agriculture practice”

  2. By Frank W Nichols on Mar 8, 2015

    Your mom told me about what your are working on. INTERESTING!
    If you need any kind of assistance with projects in poor countries, it is possible it enlist Rotary.
    My brother has done a lot of business with Dr. Charles Malone, former USU.
    Malone patented the bubble bead filter system.
    Good luck, I am proud of you.

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