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Environment & Energy

Fish And Plants Come Together In A Shipping Container Downtown

Downtown Pittsburgh’s newest structure is perhaps one of its most unique. The Aquaponics Project unveiled its portable unit Wednesday next to the Gateway T station.

Aquaponics is the marriage of hydroponics, the cultivation of plants in water, and aquaculture, fish farming. The 160-square-foot mobile unit will be at its current location until mid-November.

Joe DiPietro is the Chief Operating Officer and founding member of The Aquaponics Project, which is based out the University of Pittsburgh. He said he first heard about the idea from his friend Vinh Luong, who founded the organization. The two found partners in the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s  “Beta Burgh” small business initiative, Pitt’s Innovation Institute and the city’s Door Campaign. All provided funding and support for the project.

Credit How To Aquaponics

The unit is a shipping container with a Plexiglass second floor greenhouse. DiPietro said the ground floor will have fish swimming in a tank and as they excrete waste, the water becomes nutrient-rich, providing fertilizer for plants. After passing the water through a number of filters, it will be pumped to the top of the structure where plants will grow in vertical towers. From there, the water will trickle down the center of each tower, providing nutrients to the plant’s roots. At the same time, the plants will be removing anything that could be toxic for the fish and the water will return to the bottom clean.

“You have a closed loop system where you can serve all the water and all the nutrients while minimizing the energy and land use,” DiPietro said.

Ultimately, The Aquaponics Project is meant to inspire small farmers or urban agriculturalist to build similar structures.

“The difficulty with aquaponics now is it’s difficult to get into because there’s a lot of trade secrets and know-how that goes into building a system,” DiPietro said. “So we’re just trying to make that more accessible to the general public by creating the research facility where we kind of standardize aquaponics practices.”

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
Joe Dipietro, 18, of South Oakland, is the COO of The Aquaponics Project, which was founded by his friend Vinh Luong. Both are students at the University of Pittsburgh.

The unit’s location was chosen based on the ease of land, sun and water access. DiPietro said at their ribbon cutting Wednesday, they weren’t completely functional, but expected to be soon. All the unit was missing, he said, was a pebble-based filter that would take the sentiment out of the fish waste.

Once the container is moved back to Oakland, DiPietro said The Aquaponics Project can begin to conduct quantitative research. Because it will only be downtown for a month, they won’t be able to grow enough to collect a sufficient amount of data.