In 2013-14, the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) approached CSUN with a proposal for a partnership between the University and a LACI company, Ecoponex Systems, LLC to site and develop a sustainable urban food production system or Renewable Energy Efficient Farm (REEF). A feasibility study for this proposal was supported by the Office of the Provost and carried out by a team of CSUN faculty, principals at Ecoponex, and two contracted entities under the management of the Institute for Sustainability.
Ecoponex designed a sustainable closed-loop food and energy production system which connects the technologies of bio-digestion, aquaculture, hydroponics and solar energy to grow organic vegetables, fruits and herbs, raise fish, and cultivate algae in an indoor facility designed for an urban setting. If successful, this revolutionary highly-controlled agricultural production system could be a model for farming of the future. It is important to note that, although each of these technologies is well-proven individually, no facility yet exists in which these technologies have been successfully integrated together such that the inputs and outputs from each are balanced in a self-sustaining system requiring only green waste and sunlight as inputs and generating no waste output, whilst producing a high volume of fresh produce. This is the ambitious goal of the Ecoponex REEF facility.
The CSUN team, led by Dr. Helen Cox, assessed several components of the Ecoponex system, and participated in research and modelling studies in key areas. Where resources were unavailable at CSUN, external parties were subcontracted to complete parts of the study, including the conceptual architectural design, building energy modelling, financial analyses and implementation strategies.
Based on the research conducted, the CSUN team is highly supportive of the ambitious goals of this project and believes that it is feasible to design, develop and build such a facility. Sustainable closed-loop food production systems such as the one proposed here are the way of the future for farming, particularly in a world of limited resources. This facility is an ideal model for meeting the needs of urban populations in a sustainable manner. Although the CSUN team believes that this project has strong potential, it is not yet ready for development based on the data and information provided. There are many outstanding challenges in terms of the integration of technologies, including most importantly, the balancing of all chemical, pH, mass and energy flows between individual components. It is not clear how or whether these have been addressed. In addition, the modelling studies conducted are focused on solving engineering problems. It is not clear that the farming issues themselves, such as the maintenance of a healthy fish stock and the prevention of fish egg escape, have been addressed. It is recommended that, if they have not already done so, the Ecoponex team research existing integrated aquaculture and hydroponics facilities that are permitted in the U.S. to learn about potential challenges that lie therein.
Once such challenges have been successfully addressed, the team recommends that pilot or scaled integrated models be constructed to test out the integration strategies. It was also recommended that the team investigate the possibility of partnering with an existing aquaculture and hydroponics farm to explore and test the integration of their technologies one at a time. Siting and full-scale development should be postponed until such testing proves conclusive, at which time, CSUN or elsewhere in the San Fernando Valley or Los Angeles basin would present an ideal site location.
Benjamin Brant, President/CEO, Ecoponex Systems LLC
Tim Biehler, Executive VP Business Development, Ecoponex Systems LLC
Richard Story, Chief Financial Officer, Ecoponex Systems LLC
Gary B. Bailey, AIA, Innovative Design
Bae-Won Koh, AIA, Innovative Design
Tim Arick, Community Capital Solutions
Rais Ahmad, PhD., P.E., Assistant Professor, Department of Civil Engineering & Construction Management
Chhandak Basu, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Biology
Helen Cox, PhD, Director, Institute for Sustainability, Professor, Geography
Vibhav Durgesh, PhD, Assistant Professor, Research fellow, Department of Mechanical Engineering
S. Jimmy Gandhi, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Manufacturing Systems Engineering & Management, Director, Ernie Schaffer Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship
Yann Schrodi, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Erica Wohldmann, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology
Dev Vrat, AICP, Lecturer, Department of Urban Studies and Planning