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Containerized Hydro/Aquaculture Food Production

Packed into a 20 ft. shipping container, this food production system combines automation, hydroponics and aquaculture.

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Just add water!
And seeds...
And fish...
Produce enough food to feed one or two families in a 20 foot shipping container, (almost) completely automated.
We have been producing fodder for our small goat herd hydroponically for a couple of years in a comparably manual manner (without the fish) and found it to be very time and labour intensive, spawning the idea of automation. The idea grew into this project.

Sustainable food production involves more than just buying organic. One of the most accessible ways to create a sustainable system that reduces carbon output and increases self-sustaining food production is 'point-source' food production systems. This means that your food is produced in your own backyard or on your roof or in your driveway. The containerized small footprint aspect of this project makes it a good fit with 'point-source' production, whether shipping it to an acreage or stashing it in your backyard.

Water scarcity is also a modern issue food producers are faced with. This system is designed to get the maximum use out of every drop. The initial water investment is quite high, but the quality of the water you are starting with can be quite poor.

Some of the skill and time requirements necessary to run a combined system such as this are mitigated using automation:

Seed is dropped and spread on a perforated food-grade conveyor, leveled off and watered by an overhead micro-irrigation system. The conveyor moves over tanks of edible fish who are fed with dropped bits and plant wastes. Fish waste is pumped into the irrigation system. Rinse and repeat!

Main aspects of this system include:

1. Power system

2. Water cycle

3. Nutrient cycle

4. Plant culture

5. Aquaculture

Logs will detail both the thought processes involved and the specific requirements of each system listed above.

  • Fish feeding

    ken.do05/30/2016 at 02:49 0 comments

    Processing the feed for the fish is a complete system unto itself.
    In addition to the bits of plant matter carried down through the conveyance system by irrigation water, vegetable matter that is left over after the mature plants have been harvested can be used as a food source. This source of food needs to be broken into small enough pieces for the various sizes of fish to eat.

    A mechanism much like a meat grinder can be used to cut the stalks and root mats into palatable chunks to be fed to the hungry fish. Excess vegetable matter is fed into a bin that narrows into an auger that cuts and moves the bits through a sizing screen or grate. Have you ever seen those home french fry cutters? Something like that would work grate (excuse the pun).

    The sized bits would be plopped into the tank with the appropriately sized fish in it. This system makes the most efficient use of the nutrients in this almost closed loop system. Additional sources of vegetation would be welcome into the system, especially proteins.

    Amounts to be fed and frequency (or speed) of feeding can be controlled electronically through the appropriate hardware and software combination. The extra veg fed into the bin would have to be moved by hand (for now, but not forever). I will try to get some pictures up for all my logs...

  • Plant irrigation

    ken.do05/29/2016 at 04:44 0 comments

    Sprout, vegetative growth, and mature stages have specific irrigation requirements. The irrigation system needs to address the varied needs of the different stages of growth.

    a. Sprouts

    Sprouts do best with a fine mist applied often. Scheduling this task can be achieved with a simple timing program attached to an electronically operated valve. Plant monitoring is only necessary while the initial settings are determined.

    b. Vegetative growth

    While plants are in a vegetative state, overhead watering with small droplets is the the best technique to be used with this system. However, an 'ebb and flow' irrigation regime is better when one begins to consider disease and disease vectors. To help overcome some of the disease issues, irrigation will occur as infrequently as possible to avoid extended periods of wet leaves. This task will use preset intervals to be determined through a setup observation period and actuated using micro-irrigation sprinkler heads attached to a electronically controllable valve.

    c. Mature plants

    When a plant is mature, the root system is well developed and creates a moisture reservoir for the plant to draw on. For mature plants to produce seed, they need to experience a certain amount of stress, usually a combination of heat and reduced water availability. Overhead sprinklers can deliver large amounts of water to recharge the root system reservoir on an infrequent basis to achieve the desired amount of stress while keeping the plants at peak production. At the end of the seed maturation cycle, water will be cut off completely, negating the need for further irrigation. This system is also controlled by micro-controller activated electronic valves.

  • Seed germination / plant throughput

    ken.do05/20/2016 at 19:51 0 comments

    Parts of the plant throughput system can be automated. The system broken down into the following components:

    1. Seed bin with optional agitator

    2. Sprout conveyor

    3. Sprout slide

    4. Vegetative growth conveyor

    5. End of the line root scraper

    The conveyor to move the plant matter should be staged to provide the longest possible run, allowing the plants to mature. A small conveyor can move the seed and small sprouts until they become too rooty (is that a word?) at which point they are transfered to the main vegetative growth conveyor. The seeds we will be using take from 3 to 7 days to sprout, so if we can extend the growth time by stacking a sprout conveyor above the veg conveyor it makes sense to do so.

    1. Seed bin - The seed bin is a trapezoidal funnel that drops seed on the sprout conveyor at a predetermined rate. Rate is set by the distance of the bin bottom from the sprout conveyor and can be modified or ensured by a small amount of agitation at the opening. This agitation speed is controlled by adjusting manually or electronically the speed of the motor which drives it.

    2. Sprout conveyor - This conveyor system runs at a speed that will supply the vegetative growth conveyor with enough sprouts for the desired yield. This rate of conveyance is set by adjusting manually or electronically the speed and frequency of the motor operation. The motor may be activated at intervals rather than at an extremely slow rate.

    3. Sprout slide - A declining platform to transfer the sprouts from the end of the sprout conveyor to the start of the vegetative conveyor. It may be necessary to aid this transition with short bursts or a sustained trickle of water on the face of the slide. If the water slide is necessary, the supply of water can be preset with valves or bursts activated by electronic means.

    4. Vegetative growth conveyor - This system moves the seedlings through to harvest stages of development. It will be setup and controlled much the same as the sprout conveyor. Perpendicular to the direction of travel and underneath the conveyor will be scrapers to prevent the roots from entangling the mechanisms and damaging the conveyor. These roots will be deflected into the fish tanks as a food source.

    5. End of the line scraper - The scraper will be a blade or other edge that cuts the roots of the mature plants that may have wandered through the conveyor. This provides the separation needed to remove the plants from the system for drying or harvesting. In the future, an automated harvester may be implemented at the end of the line.

  • Automations

    ken.do05/19/2016 at 03:24 0 comments

    This is the fun part...

    The point of automation in this project is to make the skill and time requirements necessary to run a combined system like this less odious to the user. The main operations that are amiable to automation include:

    a. Seed germination/plant throughput, covering the mechanical movement of plants

    b. Irrigation of plants

    c. Fish feeding

    d. Shuffling fish from tank to tank

    e. Monitoring of tank, plant area and ambient conditions

    f. Venting and other container structural manipulations

    g. Power management

    There are probably others to be added.

    I will be addressing each of these operations in separate logs... stay tuned.

  • Power the system

    ken.do05/19/2016 at 03:07 0 comments

    Solar panels are an obvious choice for the top of the containerized system. With an area of roughly 160 square feet there is enough room for a solar collection capacity that could at least supplement the power supplied to the system. The goal is to make the system efficient enough that solar can be the primary source of the electricity needed to run this production system.

    A battery for electricity storage can collect power from the grid during off-peak usage times (to minimize the cost) and redistribute it throughout the day.

    The component systems requiring power include:

    - aeration

    - water circulation/irrigation pumping

    - conveyor(s) actuation / other automation

    These pictures are only intended to show different mounting options on shipping containers.

  • What to fish?

    ken.do05/17/2016 at 18:52 0 comments

    There are several types of fish that do well in an aquaculture setting. The best choice is tilapia: they grow fast and eat anything.

    They can grow from fry to harvest size (one to two pounds) in as fast as eight months. This doesn't seem super fast, but once the system is producing, the fish will be numerous.

    According to the numbers I have used, this system should be capable of producing six to ten pounds of fish per week (numbers subject to revision)

  • What to grow?

    ken.do05/17/2016 at 18:43 0 comments

    After extensive research, I have come up with a couple of likely candidates for hydroponically grown food plants.

    1. Millet - a fast-maturing grain with a maturation cycle of 6 weeks

    2. New Zealand spinach - a fast growing, extremely hardy, spinach-like green


    Millet produces a small grain that can be ground into flour or used as a porridge grain. It is a tough plant (ever try to get rid of it?) that has been used traditionally as a grain producer for thousands of years. Specifically, barnyard millet could be used because of it's short growing period. This plant can be grown as an early crop and/or a late crop, so it can tolerate a variety of temperatures.

    New Zealand spinach is not actually from the spinach family, but produces very thick edible leaves and a lot of them... Tastes pretty good too. Heat tolerance and cool weather growth make this plant a good year round cropping choice.

  • Aquaculture System

    ken.do05/17/2016 at 18:30 0 comments

    The Aquaculture Aspect of this project is a little more complicated and made up of several parts:

    a. Tanks, some are large and some are small

    b. Fish transfer mechanization

    c. Circulation system

    d. Aeration system

    e. Filtration system

    f. Breedery/hatchery

    g. Feeding system

    a. Tanks

    - 2 Large (400 gal), 2 medium (200 gal), and 4 small (50 gal) main tanks for growing out the fingerlings to harvest size

    - Micro tanks for breeding and up to fingerling sizes

    - Separate tanks could be partitioned from a larger tank

    b. Fish transfer

    - Mechanism for automated transfer of fish based on size

    - Could be as simple as sized openings or as complex as a mechanized scooping basket

    c. Circulation

    - standard pumps

    d. Aeration

    - air inclusion occurs when the irrigation flow-through drops into the tank

    - additional aeration may be required through traditional bubblers

    e. Filtration

    - sized grates at the bottom of tanks allow refuse to drop through

    - pumped to holding tank and allowed to breakdown a little

    - passed through progressively smaller mesh filters (that allow flushing)

    - pH adjustments as needed before recirculated or sent to irrigate

    f. Breedery/hatchery

    - part of the tank system, the flow-through filter or grating allows for separation of adults and frys

    - water flow pushes frys out of hatchery tank into next stage

    g. Feeding system

    - as the conveyor moves, bits and pieces fall through (either from the growing surface or from the return conveyor)

    - algae will grow inside tanks and provide some nutrition

    - additional feeding can include table scraps and other wastes

    - can be supplemented by hydroponic plant matter production

  • Hydroponic System

    ken.do05/17/2016 at 16:13 0 comments

    The main parts of the Hydroponic System include:

    a. Seed feed hopper

    b. Food-grade perforated conveyor system

    c. Micro-irrigation system


    a. Seed feed hopper

    - contains and gravity feeds seed onto conveyor

    - levels off seed to 2 or 3 grain depth

    - can mount to the exterior if desired

    b. Conveyor system

    - perforations too small for seed but allow water to pass through

    - if there are problems with retaining water or jamming seed, a larger perforation in the hard part of the conveyor can be covered with landscape fabric

    - motorized with slow moving motor system to move at a rate of about an inch per day

    c. Micro-irrigation system

    - a series of stationary overhead micro-irrigation emitters that spray fish-fertilized water to supply the plants nutrient and hydration requirements

    - mist emitters for germination and sprout stages

    - spray emitter output increases with plant size

    - requires particulate filtration of fish water

    - also requires a small pump

    - can consider an ebb-and-flow system for larger plants to reduce foiliar disease vectoring

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