For two years, Kyle VanderLugt has worked to refine an idea that would help agriculturalists to maximize their use of plant nutrients, whether they are rural cultivators or farmers managing vast tracts of crops.
VanderLugt's idea: Combine field production with hydroponics – creating a hybrid of the two systems – so farmers can grow fish in large basins, and then use the water and nutrients from those basins to feed surrounding plants.
The idea was put to the test in a national design competition for sustainable systems held in Washington, D.C. April 18-19.
VanderLugt, a University of Arizona doctoral degree candidate in environmental science, is working with two other graduate students and a UA faculty member on this new system technology, which they have termed "re-circulating integrated agriculture aquaculture," or RIAA.
"The advantage of the technology is that it is very robust," said VanderLugt, the team leader, who is also pursuing a master's business management degree in the Eller College of Management.
"We're looking at various aspects of sustainability: the economy, environmental aspects and social equity," he said. "You can adapt it to whatever situation you are in."
The UA team was among those presenting their work during the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) Award competition as part of the National Sustainable Design Expo.
The national competition involved more than 40 teams this year and was created to "respond to the challenges of the developed and developing world in moving toward sustainability," according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, Web site.
Those competing for the P3 Award can earn $75,000 in grant funding for their projects, chiefly to move the designs into the marketplace. The awards announcement is expected to be made in the summer.
VanderLugt is working with Rafael Martinez, a graduate student in the Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science, and Eller College graduate student Mauricio Torres-Benavides on the project. Kevin Fitzsimmons, associate director of international programs, a UA professor and extension specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is supporting the team of UA graduate students.
The technology combines agriculture and aquaculture to promote sustainable agriculture, VanderLugt said.
The hydroponic hybrid system reflects what many people have learned who own and have to clean home fresh-water aquariums: Plants love dirty fish water.
"The idea is that the fish are producing nutrients so the excess nutrients that they are not absorbing could be used to grow the plants," VanderLugt said. Developing the technology was the first phase in the project.
Fitzsimmons said that in the second phase of the project is to figure out ways to move the technology to market.
"We're really looking at two different segments. In the U.S. people who are irrigating and could get a multiple use of that water by rearing the fish and taking the affluent from the fish operation to irrigate and fertilize heir field crop," Fitzsimmons said.
"Even more of a niche type situation would be using this water inside a greenhouse to start plants that would then be planted into the field," he added.
The team is also considering ways to send the technology to developing countries.
"You might get by without using so much of pumps and blowers. On a lower scale it may be moving water around in five gallon buckets," Fitzsimmons said. "Aquaculture is big in a lot of the developing countries and we think this would be applicable."
The competition allowed students to "research, develop and design scientific, technical and policy solutions to sustainability challenges. Their designs are helping to achieve the mutual goals of economic prosperity while providing a higher quality of life and protecting the planet."
That is VanderLugt's priority number one.
He and his colleagues have already begun working with the Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco in Mexico to devise a way to introduce the technology to indigenous populations there.
"The project is strengthened because of its multidisciplinary nature," VanderLugt said.
"We have scientific people who have never worked in business and business people who have never worked in science," he said. "It's a unique project, and we've never done anything like this before."