• Baxter Lee

The Chemistry of Aquaponics

How Do Plants Get The Nutrients They Need?

How do plants get the food they really need to survive? Can plants live only with water in a system? To you and me mere water is running through plumbing in an aquaponics system. One could say fish excrement feeds the plants and the plants filter the water making it usable for the fish again. And that would be true. Like the tip of the iceberg there are millions of other microscopic activities unfolding creating an entire ecosystem of life.

From Poop to Food - A Magic Conversion

The beginning of the food chain for plants begins with the fish food. The fish consume the food and excrete into the water. The fish excrement emits ammonia, a chemical that is dangerous in high levels for fish. Once ammonia is present in the water the nitrification cycle begins. The nitrification cycle is all about converting ammonia into nitrate - a nitrogen compound that feeds plants.

Nitrification converts ammonia (NH3) into nitrite (NO2-) and finally nitrites into nitrates (NO3-). This process doesn’t happen without some help. Bacteria are the catalysts behind the nitrification cycle. Nitrosomonas, one of many nitrifying bacteria, oxidize ammonia. They add oxygen to the ammonia. Thus transforming poisonous ammonia into something that can eventually be used by the plants - nitrites.

Afterwards another nearly identical process occurs this time with a bacteria called Nitrobacter. They convert the nitrites into nitrates through oxidation. Nitrate is a form of nitrogen which is essential for plant growth.

It is important to understand that these are just two of the many bacteria making their mark in the grand nitrification cycle. Many life forms play important roles in converting what was once waste into something that gives life.

Surface Area - A Platform for Life

Just where is all of this activity taking place? Is it happening in the water? The answer is these bacteria are operating on all surfaces within the system. The more plumbing, netting, any other kind of surface, these bacteria are establishing “homes” and converting the ammonia.

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