Topics in Biological and Agricultural Engineering: Learning about Aquaculture Engineering with Dr. Steven Hall

aquaculture engineering

Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) is a complex science containing many different components and sciences. In this month’s BAE Online Blog, we talk to Dr. Steven Hall, an Associate Professor and the Director of Marine Aquaculture Research Center (MARC) in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. We asked him about his background in Aquaculture Engineering and details about this unique and interesting field.

First things, first: What is aquaculture engineering?

SH: I always say there have to be three components: biology (fish, plants, crustaceans, algae…); technology (filtration, automation, heating/cooling, pumps, computers or even robots…); and water (fresh, estuary or salt/marine).  

Aquaculture or aquacultural engineering is actively working with water-based species to culture desired species, or in some cases, to reduce undesired species. We typically think of raising fish in ponds or in recirculating aquaculture systems, which, for engineers, include not only fish or plants, but also aerators, pumps, plumbing, filtration, tanks and other components. This is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide and worth about $60 million in North Carolina.  Aquacultural engineers work with aquaculture biologists and other professionals to make these systems more productive and sustainable, using various technologies, equipment and techniques.

What is your educational and professional background?

SH: I earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Buffalo, a M.S. from University of California at Davis and a Ph.D. from Cornell University. I worked in industry: two companies in the servo hydraulics industry and an energy technology company in agriculture as well as part-time work with aquaculture and coastal engineering companies. I completed a postdoc at McGill University and was a Louisiana State University professor prior to NC State. I have international experience in 20 countries, served as president of the Aquacultural Engineering Society and will start as Editor of the Journal of Aquacultural Engineering in the fall.

Wow, you’re busy! How did you enter into the field of Aquaculture engineering, and why did you decide to focus your work and study on this topic?

SH: Aquaculture is growing; this field will be needed to help feed the world and to hopefully help save the planet. I wanted to bring my engineering expertise to this important, productive field.

What is the most interesting part of Aquaculture engineering?

SH: Drinking too much coffee and dreaming up new ideas with other interesting people sometimes gets us engineers in trouble, but often leads to new industry insights, patents and ideas.

What are the most important applications of aquaculture engineering?

SH: I am interested in a wide variety of topics—from growing algae for energy, food and other products; to finfish such as sturgeon, tilapia, catfish and striped bass; to more unique species, such as crawfish and oysters. However, a big personal focus is finding ways to enhance productivity while also improving the environment.

What does your research focus on?

SH: One current topic is use of multiple species in “multi-trophic aquaculture” to grow fish, then use the fish waste to grow algae, which are in turn consumed by oysters, thus reducing the waste and producing another valuable product. Other work focuses on coastal bioengineering, using natural species such as oysters to help protect our coasts while both growing and sequestering carbon in their shells. Another area is looking at ways to use sturgeon waste in large scale aquaponics, growing lettuce, for example, using the waste from the fish.

Why might students be interested in study aquaculture engineering or pursue research on this topic?

SH: First of all, the species we work with are fascinating. Their life cycles are not fully understood, and even what we do understand bends the brain. For example, oysters are male when young and later become female. And sturgeon are ancient fish that look a bit like aquatic dragons. Alligators, too, are always a hit, reminding us we are still in the age of the dinosaurs, and finally, many people like the products we produce. So, if you are an engineer who wants to use your abilities to improve culture of these fascinating species, aquacultural engineering might be for you.

What technology do you use in aquaculture engineering?

SH: Much of the technology in recirculating aquaculture systems includes equipment to clean and condition the water before putting it back into the system, including pumps, biofilters, aerators and other equipment. We also work on more creative ideas in terms of how to produce aquatic species in open waters, so wave energy measurement and use is important. Energy is a big factor, so we work with a variety of heaters, solar energy and other techniques to manage temperature and related factors. Finally, we literally do work with aquatic robots, one patented boat-bot, the “aquabot”, does various functions in ponds and large tanks.

What other science fields or disciplines does aquaculture engineering relate to?

SH: We often work with biologists and learn about the unique biology of these organisms, both from a production and conservation point of view. We also work with mechanical, civil, environmental and even electrical engineers. The end products can engage food scientists, and in some cases, textile professionals. And, of course, we overlap with agriculture and even policy fields.

Thank you to Dr. Steven Hall for these incredibly interesting insights into the world of Aquaculture Engineering.

Check back to the BAE Online Blog in the fall as we will take a short summer break.