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The concept of aquaponics is associated with being a sustainable production system, as it re-utilises recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) wastewater enriched in macronutrients (i.e. nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S)) and micronutrients (i.e. iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), boron (B) and molybdenum (Mo)) to fertilise the plants (Graber and Junge 2009; Licamele 2009; Nichols and Savidov 2012; Turcios and Papenbrock 2014). A much debated question is whether this concept can match its own ambition of being a quasi-closed-loop system, as high amounts of the nutrients that enter the system are wasted by discharging the nutrient-rich fish sludge (Endut et al. 2010; Naylor et al. 1999; Neto and Ostrensky 2013). Indeed, to maintain a good water quality in a RAS and aquaponic systems, the water has to be constantly filtrated for solid removal. The two main techniques for solid filtration are to retain the particles in a mesh (i.e. mesh filtration as drum filters) and to allow the particles to decant in clarifiers. In most conventional plants, sludge is recovered out of these mechanical filtration devices and is discharged as sewage. In the best cases, the sludge is dried and applied as fertiliser on land fields (Brod et al. 2017). Notably, up to 50% (in dry matter) of the feed ingested is excreted as solids by fish (Chen et al. 1997), and most of the nutrients that enter aquaponic systems via fish feed accumulate in these solids and so in the sludge (Neto and Ostrensky 2013; Schneider et al. 2005). Hence, effective solid filtration removes, for example, more than 80% of the valuable P (Monsees et al. 2017) that could otherwise be used for plant production. Therefore, recycling these valuable nutrients for aquaponic applications is of major importance. Developing an appropriate sludge treatment able to mineralise the nutrients contained in sludge for re-using them in the hydroponic unit seems to be a necessary process for contributing to close the nutrient loop to a higher degree and thus lowering the environmental impact of aquaponic systems (Goddek et al. 2015; Goddek and Keesman 2018; Goddek and Körner 2019).
It has been shown in experimental studies that complemented aquaponic nutrient solution (i.e. after addition of lacking nutrients) promotes plant growth compared to hydroponics (Delaide et al. 2016; Ru et al. 2017; Saha et al. 2016). Hence, sludge mineralisation is also a promising way to improve the aquaponic system performance as the nutrients recovered are used to complement the aquaponic solution. In addition, on-site mineralisation units can also increase the self-sufficiency of aquaponic facilities, especially with respect to finite resources as P which is essential for plant growth. P is produced by mining activities, whereby the deposits are not equally distributed around the world. In addition, its price has risen by up to 800% within the last decade (McGill 2012). Thus, mineralisation units applied in aquaponic systems are also likely to increase its future economic success and stability.
Sludge treatment in aquaponics needs to be approached differently than has been done in the past. Indeed, in conventional wastewater treatment, the main objective is to obtain a decontaminated and clean effluent. The treatment performances are expressed in terms of removal of contaminants (e.g. solids, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), etc.) out of the wastewater and by quantifying the effluents with respect to the achieved quality (Techobanoglous et al. 2014). Using this conventional approach, several studies have provided quantitative evidence that a consistent proportion of chemical oxygen demand (COD) and total suspended solids (TSS) can be removed by digesting the RAS wastewater under aerobic, anaerobic and sequential aerobic— anaerobic conditions (Goddek et al. 2018; Chowdhury et al. 2010; Mirzoyan et al. 2010; Van Rijn 2013). However, in aquaponic systems, the wastewater from fish is considered to be a valuable fertiliser source. Within a closed-loop approach, the solid part discharged needs to be minimised (i.e. organic reduction maximised), and the nutrient content in the effluents needs to be maximised (i.e. nutrient mineralisation maximised). Therefore, the wastewater treatment performance in aquaponics no longer needs to be expressed in terms of contaminants removal but in terms of its contaminant reduction and nutrient mineralisation ability.
A few studies have demonstrated the functional capability of digesting fish sludge with aerobic and anaerobic treatments for organic reduction purposes (Goddek et al. 2018; van Rijn et al. 1995). With anaerobic treatment in bioreactor, high dry matter (i.e. TSS) reduction performance (e.g. higher than 90%) can be achieved while methane can also be produced (van Lier et al. 2008; Mirzoyan and Gross 2013; Yogev et al. 2016).
The aerobic treatment of sludge is also a very effective way to reduce organic matter, which is oxidised to COsub2/sub during respiration (see Eq. 10.1). For example, reduction rates of 90% (here determined as suspended solids, COD and BOD reduction) were reported from a water resource recovery facility (Seo et al. 2017). Aerobic processes are faster than anaerobic, but they can be more expensive (Chen et al. 1997) as a constant aeration of the sludge—water mixture requires energyintensive pumps or motors. Moreover, significant fractions of the nutrients are converted to microbial biomass and do not stay dissolved in the water.
Although these studies have shown the organic reduction potential of fish sludge, only a few authors have examined the release of specific nutrients (e.g. for N and P) from fish sludge. Most of these studies were for short in vitro batch experiments (Conroy and Couturier 2010; Monsees et al. 2017; Stewart et al. 2006) and from an operating RAS (Yogev et al. 2016), rather than an aquaponic setup. While discussed to some extent in theory (Goddek et al. 2016; Yogev et al. 2017), the research has to start now to systematically investigate the organic reduction and nutrient mineralisation performance of fish sludge for both aerobic and anaerobic reactors and its effect on the water composition and plant growth. Therefore, this chapter aims to give an overview on the diverse fish sludge treatments that can be integrated into aquaponic setups to achieve organic reduction and nutrient mineralisation. Some design approaches will be highlighted. The nutrient mass balance approach in the context of aquaponic sludge treatment will be discussed, and specific methodology to quantify the sludge treatment performance will be developed.