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Evolving to standardize

It is an immense privilege to be given this opportunity to have an ongoing discussion with the readers of RAStech about RAS design and the future of aquaculture.

November 22, 2018  By Michael Ben Timmons

I was born in the 40s and grew up on a dairy and hog farm in central Ohio, a short drive from Ohio State University where I majored in agricultural engineering. I always liked science and math and growing things, so it seemed like a natural fit. I also loved fishing as a kid, and have continued fishing ever since. Got a Master of Science degree at University of Hawaii, but did nothing with aquaculture there, and then a PhD from Cornell University in agricultural engineering with a minor in fluid mechanics. Then went to North Carolina State University into the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department and focused 100 per cent on poultry housing systems (I have a point). I learned a lot about animal industries being integrated to gain economies of scale and being highly dependent upon appropriate housing systems to maximize economic return to the farmer.

Here is my first major point. I am a great believer in history and the value of studying history to predict the future. When I went to North Carolina in 1979, 100 per cent of the turkey production was done outdoors or range-grown. NC was the second – maybe third – leading turkey producer, behind Minnesota. Talk about two states with major climatic differences!

As part of a research team working with the industry, we promoted a demonstration facility that moved turkey production indoors from the range. By 1983 when I left to go back north to Cornell University, about 50 per cent of the range production had converted to indoor production facilities. By the late 80s, essentially all turkey production was done inside. My point? Dramatic shifts can occur in a relatively short time, once the economic factors line up to accelerate such a change.

If you ask people what the biggest problems facing us today are, the most common answer is the growing population crisis and the need to be able to feed an extra three billion people by the year 2050. Obviously, we need to address food production. For decades, aquaculture has been touted as a key, if not the key, part of this equation.


John Reid, CEO Water Field Farms in Amherst, Mass., wrote an excellent article that provides a concise review of the problem and what is necessary to address the issue (Aquaculture Magazine, Dec/January 2015, pp. 54-59). Properly so, Reid also discusses how global warming is exacerbating the problem. Something needs to be done and relatively fast. But what are our next steps?

In contemplating the topic for this article, I was asked to address technology change and the often-heard comment that we, as an industry, need a standardized design for recirculating aquaculture systems in order to advance. In my opinion, nothing could be farther from the truth. Designs will be adapted and become “standardized” based upon their success in the marketplace – and success will be measured by economic productivity. Take the automobile industry as an example. In 1899, 30 American manufacturers produced 2,500 motor vehicles. Some 485 companies entered the business in the next decade. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T and William Durant founded General Motors. Imagine if we had determined in 1910 that we ought to have just one auto design.

We are somewhat in a similar position today. There are a lot of RAS designs out there competing for what will become the, or at least a dominant, standardized framework. However, we’re not there yet. Again, look at the other animal industries and how design has changed and evolved over the years. The same is happening with fish systems, but I’m not sure if we are close yet to that final, common design that will propel the industry forward to the next great launch of aquaculture technology. (I will talk about some of them in my next article)

Will the standard design revolve around the mixed cell raceway (see Chun, Chanwoo, Vinci, B.J., Timmons, M.B., 2018 “Computation fluid dynamics characterization of a novel mixed cell raceway,” Aquac. Eng. 81, 19-32), the RAS2020 by Kruger-Veolia, or Nordic Aqua Farms’ raceway system? We shall see what happens.

This article originally appeared in the Winter issue of RAStech magazine

Michael Ben Timmons is a professor in the Department of Biological and  Environmental Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.  He teaches information related to the production of aquacultured products with emphasis on sustainable and environmentally friendly engineering technologies.

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