Even the grains and dairy products that 412 Food Rescue cannot redistribute have a higher purpose.

The Aquaponics Project, specializing in urban agriculture, will utilize this food waste and more from wholesalers to feed an anaerobic digestion system that will improve the design and maintenance of its portable aquaponics farm in a shipping container, a first of its kind in Pittsburgh.

The Aquaponics Project is a University of Pittsburgh club founded by a former Pitt student who also started a company by the same name. The club recently won a Ford Motor Company mobility-themed competition, the College Community Challenge (Ford C3) for improving food rescue mobilization in Pittsburgh, receiving $10,000 and a Ford Transit Connect passenger van.

Both the club and the company are student-led initiatives, with ties to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Michigan. The company is rebranding and likely will change its name. The container and anaerobic digester projects are supported by Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.

The money and transportation from Ford could help refine a 21st-century food system that becomes a model for other cities, says Sasha Cohen Ioannides, a sophomore in Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering, and the director of design and maintenance for The Aquaponics Project.

“Food is very important culturally in America, and around the world, and Pittsburgh has a huge food scarcity problem,” says Cohen Ioannides. “Ideally, we’d like to create a food system model that’s cyclical, that could be implemented in other urban areas. It started with idea that aquaponics is a closed loop system, meaning you don’t put in that much. The water gets transferred from fish to plants, and the plants utilize the nutrients from fish. We utilize food waste to produce energy and fertilizer, and that’s where we could have that closed loop.”

The aquaponics farm in a mobile shipping container with a greenhouse can raise fish and greens. Photo by Catie Schrading.

The solar-powered shipping container in which The Aquaponics Project grows tilapia, basil and microgreens is parked in Repair the World’s orchard in East Liberty for the winter. It has been parked Downtown and in Manchester, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood to educate people about its processes. With the anaerobic digestion system, it could operate year-round even without insulation to keep the fish warm. A Seattle company, Impact Bioenergy, is offering advice on the system’s design.

“Anaerobic digestion is the process of utilizing gasses from the decomposing food that gets donated to us,” explains Cohen Ioannides. “It produces something called sludge, which is a high-nutrient fertilizer. Because the system is producing both heat and energy, we can power it through the winter because the source of energy is going to be food rather than the sun. And there’s always an excess of food waste.”

The Ford Transit will be used to pick up food waste, move fish or transport fertilizer to donation centers or to sell. Some of the fertilizer will be donated to local community gardens.

The Aquaponics Project was established in 2016 by Pitt students Vinh Luong, who has since transferred to Michigan, and Catie Schrading. The team also includes Carnegie Mellon sophomore Alexis Hoane and Pitt environmental engineering student Kareem Rabbat. New to the team is Dylan Lew, a Carnegie Mellon freshman.

The aquaponics farm produced 50 pounds of basil and 80 tilapia last year. The team previously pitched its anaerobic digestion system at the 2017 Ford C3 and won $25,000. Through a series of biological processes, microorganisms break down food waste in the absence of oxygen, producing biofertilizer and biogas that can be used for energy and heat.

Ford’s special mobility competition, showcasing solutions that make lives better by changing the way people move, marked the 10-year anniversary of its Ford C3. The company invited The Aquaponics Project and two other previous winners to pitch their solutions to Ford executives for the chance to win the passenger van and monetary prizes.

“We’re extremely excited that corporations are coming forward with these kinds of initiatives. It gives our students the opportunity to push forward with their ideas,” says Anna J. Siefken, associate director for innovation and strategic partnerships at Carnegie Mellon’s Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation.

Ideas such as this one “help to grow the ecosystem for Pittsburgh, and that helps everyone,” Siefken says. “From our perspective, it’s an economic development driver. We have between 20 to 30 companies that we’re helping, in different stages of their development. Some are just an idea; some are completely spun out; and some are looking at commercialization.”

The Aquaponics Project team is discussing whether to pursue commercialization of the company, says Cohen Ioannides.

“We’re not sure if we want to go into the nonprofit path or the for-profit path,” she says.

In addition to Repair the World and 412 Food Rescue, co-founded by 2003 Carnegie Mellon alumna Leah Lizarondo, The Aquaponics Project partners with The Door Campaign and other organizations around the city. The students involved enjoy working together and finding ways to give back to the community, says Cohen Ioannides.

“As a team, we all enjoy cooking together,” she says. “All of us love cooking — it’s very calming. The majority of us enjoy doing yoga. That’s kind of our team bonding, exercising. We have a lot of shared passions, even though none of us are in the same field.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify university and student involvement in The Aquaponics Project.