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12.5 Vertical Aquaponics

5 months ago

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12.5.1 Introduction

Whilst aquaponics can be seen as part of a global solution to increase food production in more sustainable and productive ways and where growing more food in urban areas is now recognized as part of the solution to food security and a global food crisis (Konig et al. 2016), aquaponic systems can themselves become more productive and sustainable by adopting alternative growing technologies and learning from emerging technologies such as vertical farming and living walls (Khandaker and Kotzen 2018). Additionally by being space-efficient, they can be better integrated into urban areas.

In the developed world most aquaponic systems are placed in greenhouses in order to control temperature; in northern Europe and North America for example, winter temperatures are too cold in winter and in Mediterranean areas such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Israel, summer temperatures are too warm. There are of course many additional advantages in growing food in controlled greenhouses, such as the ability to regulate relative humidity and control air movement, to quarantine fish as well as plants from diseases as well as pests and potentially being able to add COsub2/sub, to aid plant growth. However, growing produce in a greenhouse can readily raise costs through (a) the capital costs of the greenhouse (a broad estimate of US \$350/msup2/sup Arnold 2017) and (b) allied infrastructure such as microclimate controls which include heating and cooling systems and lighting. On top of the initial infrastructure costs, there are also the specific greenhouse production costs which include the energy/power supply for heating and cooling as well as lighting.

Most aquaponic systems such as the University of the Virgin Island (UVI) system (Fig. 12.1), designed by Dr. James Rakocy and his colleagues, use horizontal grow tanks or beds, emulating traditional land-based arable growing patterns to produce vegetables (Khandaker and Kotzen 2018). In other words, the system relies on horizontal rows/arrays of plants usually elevated to around waist level so that plant-related management tasks can be readily undertaken. Parallel developments in living wall and vertical farming technologies have arisen at almost the same time that aquaponics has evolved and are similarly in the adolescent stage of development. Similarly as in aquaponics, as more people become involved there is a concomitant increase in systems and technological development to increase productivity and reduce costs. The coupling of vertical growing systems (vertical farming systems and living walls) rather than horizontal beds to the fish and filtration tanks is potentially one key way of increasing productivity as it should be possible to increase the number of vegetables grown compared to the numbers produced in typical horizontal bed aquaponics. The UVI aquaponic systems (Fig. 12.2) produce approximately 32 plants per square metre (Al-Hafedh et al. 2008), depending on the species and cultivar that is grown, but as Khandaker and Kotzen (2018) note, approximately 96 plants can be grown per square metre 'using back-to-back elements of the Terapia Urbana[1] LW system which is more than three times the density

Fig. 12.2 Schematic diagram of a typical UVI system illustrating the ratio of fish tanks/filters/plant growing tanks which is 2:1:5. This shows that the greatest area is subsumed by the plants and it is in this area that space savings may be considered. (Khandaker and Kotzen 2018)

compared to the UVI horizontal growing system'. A conservative estimate should at least double the maximum amount grown in horizontal beds to 64 plants/msup2/sup. In an experiment with lettuce (Lactuca sativa L. cv. 'Little Gem') using horizontal beds and planted columns, planted at similar densities, Touliatos et al. (2016) suggest that the 'Vertical Farming System (VFS) presents an attractive alternative to horizontal hydroponic growth systems (and) that further increases in yield could be achieved by incorporating artificial lighting in the VFS'.

Vertical Farming Systems (VFS)

Before we discuss the specific requirements for vertical systems we need to discuss the types of systems that are available. In VFS there are three main generic types (Fig. 12.3):

  1. Stacked Horizontal Beds: Instead of only having one horizontal grow bed, thebeds are stacked like shelves in tiers. This arrangement means that in a greenhouse, only the upper bed will be facing direct natural light and supplementary light needs to be provided at all levels. This is usually provided from directly under the grow bed above. In principle this could mean that the growing beds could be stacked as high as the greenhouse allows, but of course growing things at height means greater difficulty in the system's management including planting, maintenance and harvesting, requiring scissor lifts and additional energy to pump nutrient-rich water to all levels. According to Bright Agrotech (Storey 2015), up to four tiers is profitable and anything above that is unprofitable. Storey (2015) further notes that labour increases by 25% at the second, third and fourth levels when a scissor lift is required (Fig. 12.3, Illustration A).


Fig. 12.3 Vertical farming systems and their lighting arrangements

  1. Vertical Tower Systems (VTS): Vertical Tower Systems comprise systems whichgrow plants in vertical arrays within a container or series of stacked modules. Depending on the system, plants are grown facing one direction or if, for example, they are planted in a tube-like form, then they can be arranged facing any direction. An example of a vertical array system, where plants are grown facing in a single direction is the ZipGrowsupTM/sup which are either hung or supported in rows (Fig. 12.3, Illustration B1). The rows between are approximately 0.5 metres (20 inches). Growing in a more three-dimensional way occurs with stacked systems or in tubular systems which allow more plants to be grown, but lighting is more complex (Fig. 12.3, Illustration B2).

  2. Stepped Tiers: These systems contain rigid or moving plant troughs. The SkyGreens VFS in Singapore uses a rotating trough system which moves the troughs upwards and into the light. Additional natural light is more significant towards the top and less so at the bottom (Fig. 12.3, Illustration C1). Other tier systems are stepped so that each tier has an unobstructed interface with the light from above, whether this is natural light from the greenhouse roof or artificial light. But these systems have to be quite low in order for people to reach the plants (Fig. 12.3, Illustration C2).

Living Walls

Living walls have yet to be used in aquaponics except in a number of trial systems such as at the University of Greenwich, London (Khandaker and Kotzen 2018). Whereas most VFS use nutrient film technique (NFT) grow channels or encapsulated mineral wool blocks, LWs sometimes also use soil type substrates in pots or troughs, which provide the rooting medium. Whilst this is fine for growing ornamental plants as well as vegetables and herbs, when coupled with fish tanks, any addition of soil to the system may complicate the microbial character of the system and be detrimental to the fish. This is however unknown and requires research. Experiments undertaken at the University of Greenwich (Khandaker and Kotzen 2018) indicate that from a number of single, inert substrates tested (including hydroleica, perlite, straw, Sphagnum moss, mineral wool and coconut fibre), coconut fibre and then mineral wool were superior in terms of root penetration and root growth in lettuce (Lactuca sativa).

Vertical v. Horizontal: Factors to Be Considered

There are four key aspects which need to be taken into account when comparing the benefits (productivity and sustainability) of vertical growing, compared to horizontal growing. These are (1) space, (2) lighting, (3) energy and (4) life cycle costs.

  1. Space

The benefits of being able to grow produce vertically, back to back, need to be balanced with the amount of space that is required to provide an even spread of lighting as well as the row space required for management and maintenance. The width of a row in hydroponic systems varies. As noted the standard ZipGrowsupTM/sup system is approximately 0.5 metres, whereas the usual row width for growing tomatoes and cucumbers hydroponically varies from 0.9 to 1.2 metres (Badgery-Parker and James 2010). Growing smaller plants such as lettuce and herbs such as basil, may allow for narrower rows, but of course row width must ensure that produce is not compromised by moving items such as trolleys and scissor lifts. A key issue with growing vertically is the conflict that occurs between having fixed rows and fixed lighting, which needs to be located in the rows between the planting facades. These lights will impede people movements and thus either the lights need to be (i) part of the growing structure or (ii) retractable or movable, so that workers can readily undertake tasks, or (iii) the planting structures are movable and the lights remain static.

  1. Lighting

Greenhouse production of vegetables and other plants rely on specific spatial arrangements which allow for planting, management through growth and then harvesting. The spatial arrangement will depend on the types of plants and the types of mechanization that is installed. Additionally, growing efficiently relies on the supplement of additional light of different types, which have their own pros and cons. In general what these lights do is provide specific wavelengths for plant growth and for fruit or flower production. Whereas it is relatively simple and more common to evenly light plants grown horizontally, it is more of a challenge to evenly light a vertical surface.

With regard to types of lighting, many producers have moved to or are tempted to install LEDs (light-emitting diodes), due to their long lifespan, up to 50,000 hours or more (Gupta 2017), their low power requirements and their recent reduction in cost. Virsile et al. in Gupta (2017) note that most applications of LED lighting in greenhouses choose the combinations of red and blue wavelengths with high photon efficiency but that green and white light containing substantial amounts of green wavelengths has a positive physiological impact on plants. However, the combination of blue and red lights creates a purplish-grey image, and this hampers the visual evaluation of plant health. The type of wavelengths chosen is complex and can have benefits at different stages in the plant's life and even according to the cultivars of, for example, lettuce. Red-leafed lettuces, for example, respond to blue LED lighting, increasing their pigmentation (Virsile et al. in Gupta 2017). Additionally, blue LED lighting can improve the nutritional quality of green vegetables, reducing nitrate content, increasing antioxidants and phenolic and other beneficial compounds. The light spectra also affect taste, shape and texture (Virsile et al. in Gupta 2017). The costs of LEDs have dropped significantly and as the efficacy of LEDs has increased so the break-even return time on investment has decreased (Bugbee in Gupta 2017).

Other lighting of course exists and this includes fluorescent lighting, metal halide (MH) lighting and high pressure sodium (HPS) lighting. The type of lighting that is used in vertical farming and with living walls varies considerably depending on the scale and location. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are relatively thin and can easily fit into small spaces, but they require an inductive ballast to regulate current through the tubes. CFLs use only 20—30% of an incandescent bulb and they last six to eight times longer but they are almost 50% less efficient than LEDs. They are by far the cheapest of the three major types of grow lights. HPS grow light technology is over 75 years old and is well established for growing under glass, but they produce a lot of heat and are thus not suitable for vertical farming and living walls, where light needs to be delivered quite close to the plants. The heat produced by LED grow lights, on the other hand, is minimal. The cost however is higher than other two types, and eye protection is needed for longer-term exposure to LEDs as the long-term exposure to the light spectra can be damaging to the eyes. The arrangement of VFS units will dictate the lighting arrangement but on the whole these are lit by LEDs. The method of lighting living walls will depend on the height of the wall. The taller the wall the more difficult it is to apply an even spread across the surface, although it should be noted that the number of lights used should be no different to those used in horizontal grow beds and if the wall is tall then the lights may need to be staggered. As most living walls are located for aesthetic purposes, lighting needs to be kept as far as possible, out of the way and the lighting has to not only provide adequate light for plant growth and health, but also so that the plants look good (Fig. 12.4).


Fig. 12.4 A 4-metre-tall, 5-metre-long living wall can be adequately lit with six high-efficiency discharge lamps. Note these were chosen not only to provide adequate light for growth but also so that the plants in the living wall would look good. (University of Greenwich Living Wall. Source: Benz Kotzen)

The advances in LED technology, where lighting frequencies and intensity can be engineered to suit individual species and cultivars as well as their various life cycles means that LEDs will become the technology of choice in the near future. This will additionally be enhanced by reductions in costs.

  1. Energy

More energy for lighting is likely to be required for VFS as well as LWs as even natural lighting cannot be achieved over vertical surfaces. Additionally more pumping power for irrigation will be required and this will be relative to the height of the VFS or LWs.

  1. Comparative Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)

Whilst there are numerous studies undertaken on life cycle analysis of aquaponics and various aspects of aquaponic systems, there are no comparative studies that compare vertical versus horizontal aquaponics. This has yet to be done. We are getting to a point where vertical aquaponics is likely to warrant further testing and research and in time vertical aquaponics, which couples vertical farming systems or living wall systems with the fish tanks and filtration units, is likely to become more mainstream, as long as these can be profitable and sustainable.