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An Engineering Analysis of the Stoichiometry of Autotrophic, Heterotrophic Bacterial Control of Ammonia-Nitrogen in Zero-Exchange Production

J.M. Ebeling*1, M.B. Timmons2 and J.J. Bisogni3
Volume 10, June 2009

1Aquaculture Systems Technologies, LLC
New Orleans, LA 70121 USA

2Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853 USA

3School of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853 USA

*Corresponding Author: jamesebeling@aol.com

Keywords: zero-exchange systems, autotrophic system, heterotrophic system, C/N ratio

International Journal of Recirculating Aquaculture 10 (2009) 63-90. All Rights Reserved
© Copyright 2009 by Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA USA


After dissolved oxygen, ammonia-nitrogen buildup from the metabolism of feed is usually the limiting factor to increasing production levels in intensive aquaculture systems. Currently, large fixed-cell bioreactors are the primary strategy used to control inorganic nitrogen in intensive recirculating systems. This option utilizes chemosynthetic autotrophic bacteria, ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB), and nitrite-oxidizing bacteria (NOB). Zero-exchange nitrification management systems have been developed based on heterotrophic bacteria and promoted for the intensive production of marine shrimp and tilapia. In these systems, the heterotrophic bacterial growth is stimulated through the addition of an organic labile carbonaceous substrate. At high organic carbon to nitrogen (C/N) feed ratios, heterotrophic bacteria assimilate ammonia-nitrogen directly from the water, replacing the need for an external fixed film biofilter. As a result, build-up of suspended solids may become the second limiting factor after dissolved oxygen. This paper reviews two nitrogen conversion pathways used for the removal of ammonia-nitrogen in aquaculture systems; autotrophic bacterial conversion of ammonia-nitrogen to nitrate nitrogen, and heterotrophic bacterial conversion of ammonia-nitrogen directly to microbial biomass. The first part of this study reviews these two ammonia removal pathways, presents a set of balanced stoichiometric relationships, and discusses their impact on water quality. In addition, microbial growth energetics are used to characterize production of volatile and total suspended solids for autotrophic and heterotrophic systems. A critical verification of this work was that only a small fraction of the feedís carbon content is readily available to the heterotrophic bacteria. For example, feed containing 35% protein (350 g/kg feed) has only 109 g/kg feed of labile carbon. In the paperís second part, the results of a study on the impact C/N ratio on water quality is presented. In this experimental trial sufficient labile organic carbon in the form of sucrose (sugar) was added daily at 0%, 50%, and 100% of the system feeding rate to three prototype zero-exchange systems. The system was stocked with marine shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) at modest density (150 /m2) and water quality was measured daily. Significant differences were seen between the three strategies in the key water quality parameters of ammonia-nitrogen, nitrite-nitrogen, nitrate-nitrogen, pH, and alkalinity. The control (0%) system exhibited water quality characteristics of a mixed autotrophic/heterotrophic system while the other two systems receiving supplemental organic carbon (50% and 100%) showed water quality characteristics of pure heterotrophic systems.