Van Ginkel Designs Future of Farming with Aquaponics

If urban farming is the cure for food deserts, Steven Van Ginkel may be the man to lead us to the oasis.

Steven Van Ginkel's Home Aquaponics
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Van Ginkel has constructed a home aquaponics system and is working to install systems elsewhere, with a vision to have one on campus.

During the two years since he arrived at Georgia Tech from Phoenix, Ariz., the research engineer in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering has worked with people across the city and country to bring local, sustainable food sources to these so-called food deserts — areas with limited access to fresh, affordable groceries. In April he was honored with the Georgia Tech Earth Day Environmental Leadership Award, a nod to an individual or group that has had a significant, long-term environmental impact on campus.

When he came to Tech in 2011, Van Ginkel took the helm of a net zero water, energy, and nutrient, high intensity, urban aquaponics initiative. His upbringing on a family farm in Iowa, combined with degrees in fisheries and environmental engineering, made the project a perfect fit.

In addition, Van Ginkel has focused on his own Sustainable Aquaponic Systems project, also a net-zero, high intensity urban farming endeavor aimed at helping city dwellers grow their own food. Aquaponics is essentially a high intensity farm that produces both vegetables and fish with the same resources; it lets people become urban farmers by growing their own food in a small space. Systems can be built at any scale and size, with multiple ways to nourish produce and fish. Van Ginkel envisions having an aquaponics system on campus that would use food waste from dining halls, rainwater, and solar energy to grow fresh food to then be consumed in dining halls once again. With other projects such as Students Organizing for Sustainability's West Campus community garden, Ideas to Serve People’s Choice winner Atlanta Harvest, and the GT Urban Honey Bees Project, a growing population of students, faculty and staff are finding ways to source food for campus without leaving Tech’s borders.


"Teach a Man to Fish"

Van Ginkel can teach just about anyone the science of aquaponics. He advises the student group Urban Bios that is driving the campus aquaponics project. He’s working to install a system at Underground Atlanta that could help revive the waning tourist area. Representatives from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport have voiced interest in constructing an aeroponics system, similar to hydroponics, for the airport’s atrium, partly inspired by a garden in Chicago O’Hare International Airport. He has even consulted with students on building a system at their fraternity house.

Outside the perimeter, Van Ginkel is working to bring aquaponics to an industrial park in Buena Vista, Ga., and a fish farm in Sparta, Ga. In his own backyard in Marietta, he constructed a system over the course of a few days for less than $750 that produces several pounds of food each week for his family.

Though he leaves the ultimate vision for a campus aquaponics system to the Urban Bios team, Van Ginkel imagines having something that would show various aspects of sustainable food production — a small system, but one that would also incorporate community involvement on and off campus, modeling the ability of urban farming to not only create a fresh food source, but also jobs and a sense of community in places that may lack all three.

"America would be truly blessed if this kind of healthy food were as accessible as fast food," he said. "Our current food system is controlled by relatively few people. It's unhealthy, it's not democratic, and it may not be resilient. It’s time for a change and, with our economy as it is today, the current time is perfect for this change."


From Fish to Fuel

Van Ginkel’s main role on campus is now devoted to Tech being one of five universities in the nation participating in the Department of Energy-funded Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3). The three-year project will provide data to enhance the productivity of algae as biodiesel. In ponds being installed at a Georgia Tech Research Institute facility off North Avenue, algae will be grown, tested and refined as a biofuel product.

When testing is done and it comes time to dispose of algae, Van Ginkel sees a three-step process: first, nutrients in food waste are used to grow algae; the algae is then fed to rotifers, copepods, and zooplankton; finally, these are fed to fish that can be harvested for human consumption. Guided by the idea that “you are what you eat,” Van Ginkel plans to grow algae high in heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. In the future, he envisions installations that creat a symbiotic relationship between aquaponic systems and algae-biodiesel farms that enable people to grow both their own food and fuel.

"A lot of people are malnourished in America and around the world, and this is curable if we have the will. It would be great if students and faculty could help design and operate a super efficient system here on campus that can then be replicated worldwide."

Finding sustainable solutions to modern problems remains at the heart of Van Ginkel’s many projects and endeavors. Last fall, while trying to conceive of a cheap insulation material for an energy-efficient ‘earthship’ constructed to grow mushrooms, he happened upon discarded tires in Peachtree Creek. He returned with a group of students and recovered nearly 500 tires from just a few miles of the creek, simultaneously cleaning up the waterway and providing a sustainable material for the project.

Van Ginkel, who raises fish in his home system, takes the “teach a man to fish” mantra to heart. He’ll provide blueprints or talk with anyone who’s interested in taking on urban farming and willingly gives group talks or presentations. If his efforts go as planned, backyard aquaponics, downtown greenhouses, and campus algae ponds are just the beginnings of a more sustainable and self-sufficient society starting here in Atlanta.