Built for use

New and renovated flora and fauna research facilities will bolster college programs that support the state’s economy. 

As the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences works to support the growth of agriculture as the state’s foremost economic engine, among its top priorities is growing facilities to help expand its capacity for agricultural research. Developing new facilities and renovating existing ones help meet students’ needs and keep CALS at the forefront of interdisciplinary innovation. Two prime examples, one renovated, one new, can be found on the NC State campus: the Aquatic Facility at Grinnells Animal Health Labs and the NCSU Substrate Processing and Research Center (SPARC) at JC Raulston Arboretum’s Horticultural Field Lab. Here is a look at those facilities and the programs that they are enhancing.

An Aquatics Facility, Custom-Designed

Fish in tanks
Tanks hold juvenile tilapia that grow from fry to fingerlings in the fry-rearing room.

The aquaculture farm gate, processed product and feed value to North Carolina has been estimated as approaching $53 million. What happens in the Grinnells Aquatic Facility strengthens the college’s ongoing support of those activities.

Grinnells has been renovated to house the new state-of-the-art aquaculture facility that can serve multiple researchers under one roof. The new wet lab unit is located on the central campus of NC State. Dr. Harry Daniels, head of the CALS Department of Applied Ecology, in which the facility is housed, described the unit as “designed for highly controlled, small-scale, replicated research with aquatic animals.” It consists of 11 research rooms, a workshop, two offices and various other support rooms.

“This facility’s location, makes it ideal for educating the public, as well as serving as a showpiece to visiting scientists,” said Brad Ring, research operations manager and supervisor at Grinnells, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Purdue University in fisheries and aquatic science and has been working with fish about 17 years. “The standards by which this place was built will be impressive to anyone who knows what they are looking at and will reflect very positively on NC State University.”

Tilapia in tank
In the grow-out area, tilapia swarm to the surface of their tank at feeding time.

Ring is supervisor and liaison of the aquatic portion of this building and has one full-time staff member, research technician John Davis. In fact, Ring and Davis are the artisans of the renovation: All the equipment and systems, all the concrete tank stands, all filtration systems were designed, built and/or installed by them.

“We saved the university about $1.4 million by doing the concrete work and the design and by our building the actual systems,” Ring said.

The research rooms have a total area of 4,743 square feet, and all the rooms are equipped with closed-loop filtration systems to continually clean and recirculate the water. Each room is equipped with independent photoperiod controls. The research rooms have a wide variety of aquaria systems (rack units) and tank sizes and configurations that were designed to accommodate a broad spectrum of potential needs for current and future faculty. Currently, there are multiple faculty P.I.s [principal research investigators], post docs, graduate students and undergraduate students who conduct research there.

“This facility houses several different species of fish for multiple P.I.s. The most common species you will find here are striped bass, hybrid striped bass, zebrafish and various species of tilapia. However, we have and will continue to care for whatever species our research requires,” Ring said, as, in a walk-through tour, he described the updates that were made to the building.

In the fry-rearing room, Ring pointed out tanks where he keeps the brood stock fish, in this case producing juvenile tilapia that grow in these tanks. “We raise the tilapia from fry to fingerling to adult,” he says. “When they are full grown, they can be used for various research purposes. Our growing them here allows us to have fish when we need them and avoid introducing diseases from other labs.”

When baby tilapia from the first room get bigger, they move to the grow-out area in the experimental room. In the tanks are tilapia ranging from about four inches in the first tank to one foot in the farthest tank, where the brood stock are swimming. An interesting note: Tilapia, big and little, keep the tanks clean.

In a nearby rack room, several racks of shelves hold multiple aquaria, where adult zebra fish are kept and mostly used for behavioral studies. They breed the zebra fish over gravel, so the eggs can be hidden, because zebra fish will eat their eggs and fry.

Across the hall is the holding systems room, where the tilapia will live the rest of their lives, until needed for research study. There is a year’s worth of fish there.

But there are still tanks at ready for more. “All those from grow-out will move to here when they are bigger,” Ring said. “We don’t want to have the population in the tanks too dense, but enough so they can compete for food, which is healthy for them to do.”

Ring and Davis
Ring and Davis make adjustments to the filtration system, which they designed, built and installed at Grinnells themselves.

The filtration system is consistent in each room: Green vessels filter out solids; the blue one is a bio filter, taking care of ammonia waste. A black horizontal cylinder at top is the UV filter, where a UV bulb kills parasites, bacteria and algae to sterilize the water. A black box is the heater, and big white containers are sumps, which pull water from and push the water to the filtration and back.

“Each part has a bypass fixture so if something goes awry the system can keep running,” Ring said. “We built automated systems to treat the water, to dechlorinate the city water that we use.”

Ring pointed out the Metal Halide lights that simulate dawn. “They’re programmed to come on before the fluorescents do,” he said. “Most fish spawn in morning or afternoon. We can adjust the length of day for summer-winter cycles.”

Added Davis, “Both of us had worked at multiple fish places before, so we knew what worked.”

Renovations were much more extensive in some rooms than others. However, all the rooms needed a complete electrical upgrade.

“The electrical needs of a fish facility like ours are much higher than most would think. We chose all high-efficiency equipment for this facility, but all that equipment still has to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Ring said. “This portion of the building was fitted with its own transformer and back-up generator independent of the rest of the building to meet our power needs.”

There is also an automated system that will contact Ring and Davis, wherever they are, if anything goes awry.

Corrosion resistance was Ring’s No.1 concern in all phases of construction, he said. “All building materials are concrete, plastic, fiberglass or stainless steel. The new conduit is PVC and all the brackets and fasteners are stainless. There was no wood or other porous materials that could rot or mold used during the project. Even the light fixtures have gaskets allowing us to wash down floors, walls and ceilings whenever we like.”

Previously most of the fish had been housed in the Biological Resources Facility and in the Don Ellis Building off Varsity Drive, Ring said. “We had a few small fish systems in BRF, but that facility was not designed for larger systems. Unfortunately neither was Don Ellis.”

So the search was on for a space more suited to handle the corrosive environment that is a fish facility.

“As soon as we saw Grinnells we knew it was perfect,” he said. “Every room had a water supply, multiple large floor drains and good square footage for fish systems, and the building is a single-story building. Putting thousands of gallons of water on the second or third story of a building isn’t the best idea in the world.”

Ring said that an average day at the Grinnells facility consists of monitoring water quality, backwashing filters, daily fish care, maintaining equipment, disease management and whatever special needs that the current research projects require.

“In addition to these activities, we are now spawning our own fish in order to provide research animals for the future projects,” he said. “Producing our own future generations allows us to control genetic diversity in our animals, as well as reducing the risk of bringing in disease from other fish facilities.”

Ring pointed out that there is no “ownership” of space by a single investigator and that he designed the place to be as flexible as possible to different types of research, as well as different research species.

“Short of housing great white sharks, this facility was designed and built to accommodate fish ranging from one inch to several feet. The filtration units were sized to support either freshwater or saltwater fish at cold or warm temperatures. I tried to take all my experiences here over the last 15 years and build a place that would accommodate anything the P.I.s could need with little or no modifications.”

Ring also noted that there are plans to have a teaching lab in the facility’s “big room” to support NC State aquaculture classes.

He hopes to conduct some alternative power studies here, too, if funding becomes available, he said. “I am interested particularly in solar-thermal heating to try and reduce the power consumption of our water heating devices. I think that this facility would be ideal for testing the efficiencies and reliability of these units and the results could have real world applications in the aquaculture industry.”

Ring wanted to thank “everyone involved here at NC State for trusting me to design and build this facility.”

He extended gratitude to, from University Facilities, Mike Baker, “our engineer who did a fantastic job with our electrical work and lighting systems,” as well as J.C. Boykin, Lisa Maune, Andy Sneed, Angkana Bode and George Smith; and from CALS, Drs. Damian Shea, David Smith, Sylvia Blankenship, Harry Daniels and Craig Sullivan. He also acknowledged Scottie Groover, Aquatic Ecosystems/My Aquatic Solutions; Wayne Nicholson, Carolina Plumbing Supply; and Tony Harzell, Tarsh Moore and Abe Seiders, all of Lowes Home Improvement.

“I’ve been building fish systems for a long time, but this build was truly something special,” Ring said, “It should also be a facility that NC State can rely on for many years to come.”

A SPARC of Ingenuity

At the Horticultural Substrates Laboratory in Kilgore Hall, Drs. Brian Jackson and Bill Fonteno show the various types and consistencies of substrates, the plant growth media designed to meet growers’ specific needs.
At the Horticultural Substrates Laboratory in Kilgore Hall, Drs. Brian Jackson and Bill Fonteno show the various types and consistencies of substrates, the plant growth media designed to meet growers’ specific needs.

According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the North Carolina green industry – which includes greenhouse, nursery, floriculture, sod and Christmas tree producers and related industry trades – represents $8.6 billion in economic impact in the state. Among the NC State University programs supporting that industry are those of the Horticulture Substrates Laboratory (HSL). And now the work of those substrate scientists has been significantly strengthened with a new state-of- engineering facility – the Substrate Processing and Research Center (SPARC).

At the SPARC, “researchers seek to stay on the cutting edge of developing and engineering new soils/substrates to meet the needs of the ever-changing world of agriculture and horticulture,” said Dr. Brian Jackson, associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Department of Horticultural Science.

“Substrates” refers to the growth media or potting soils around a plant. Horticultural substrate research studies include plant/water/fertilizer issues related to the below-ground portion of a crop.

“To think of substrates and their role in horticulture, it is in many ways like Atlas holding the world. Substrates are to horticulture what Atlas is in that portrayal….the foundation!” said Jackson, who specializes in horticultural substrates for greenhouse and nursery crop production and for retail consumer products (bagged soil and mulches in garden centers).

The SPARC enables large-scale processing of organic materials – such as wood, bark, grasses, tobacco stalks – that can be used in developing the next generation of potting soils. The SPARC also facilitates lab activities and, with the creation of new products, can be an economic stimulus.
The SPARC enables large-scale processing of organic materials – such as wood, bark, grasses, tobacco stalks – that can be used in developing the next generation of potting soils. The SPARC also facilitates lab activities and, with the creation of new products, can be an economic stimulus.

“The growth of plants in containers is as important now as it ever has been and will continue to be in the future, as horticulture and all of agriculture continually improve in efficiency and effectiveness,” he said. “Even field grown horticultural plants and crops start their lives in substrates when they are in the seed/seedling or cutting propagation stage.”

Dr. Bill Fonteno is founder and lead developer of the CALS activities that make up the premier substrate science program in the United States. The Horticultural Science Department has had a long history of soils and substrates work. Along with Fonteno, Drs. Ted Bilderback, Stu Warren and Paul Nelson were groundbreakers in greenhouse, nursery and landscape substrates at NC State for more than 20 years but have all since retired. Today several others have research and extension areas in soils and substrates, including Dr. Helen Kraus in rain gardens and nursery crops, Dr. Brian Whipker in greenhouse nutrition and Dr. Barbara Fair in landscape and urban soils. It is the largest collection of researchers in horticultural soils and substrates in the United States.

Fonteno explains that there are three tiers of function in his and Jackson’s combined program: 1) laboratory analysis and characterization of retail and professional substrates; 2) “rhizometrics,” the assessment of root growth of container-grown plants; and 3) with SPARC, the engineering and construction of traditional and alternative organic substrate components.

In the first, or diagnostic function, the CALS scientists analyze a substrate’s chemical properties, those concerned with plant nutrition, fertilization practices and nutrient retention in the container, and its physical properties, which dictate how rapidly the container will drain, how often watering is needed and, to a certain extent, how available nutrients will be to plants. They also analyze materials sent to them by growers and those who manufacture substrates.

“What we all did for more than 35 years was to analyze materials brought to us to answer the question, ‘Will this work?’” he said. “Now, adding Brian’s perspective, we are actually engineering components for substrates.”

So, for the last five years, Jackson said, “We’ve been working on engineering wood materials to be used in soil products – a process that makes several different products from the same original tree. We have added the engineering to the science of substrates to design them to meet the growers’ needs.”

While Fonteno and Jackson have worked with several less popular materials (tobacco stalks, cotton stalks, switch grasses, bamboo, and eucalyptus) for substrates, the two main materials they are engineering and constructing from are pine bark and pine wood – specifically from loblolly pine, which is native pine to the southeast United States and is the most abundant, most grown pine species.

“Substrates used to contain soil (field soil) until the 1960s, but today no field soil is used,” Jackson said. “Soil is heavy, may contain heavy metals, doesn’t have good air/water properties when put in a container, and it can contain weed seeds, herbicides, pathogens and diseases.”

Today, substrates are “soilless” in that they comprise organic and inorganic materials that are lightweight and have better physical (wettability, water holding, air space) and chemical (pH and soluble salts) properties. “We needed to figure out how to manufacture wood-based analogs of traditional components, so people can make and sell these products,” Jackson said.

Thus, he said, “The new SPARC facilitates not only the lab activities but new products and an economic stimulus.”

And more and more crops are and will be grown in containers and controlled environments in the future, he said. He lists as popular examples floriculture crops (poinsettia, mums, bedding plants, cut flowers), vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers), fruits (strawberries), herbs and a possible crop of the future, marijuana.

Said Fonteno, “Soils that plants grow in have to maintain high standards. Having better engineered substrates helps produce better plants.”

He points out the varieties of media they are processing from pine wood for the differing roles they play, including a cottony, water-holding medium that can substitute for peat; pellet-like wood particles that add drainage and substitute for white perlite (volcanic ore aggregate); and a small particled blend that holds water and improves drainage.

“As water quality and supply becomes more problematic for growers, efficiency of materials to capture and hold water must be greater,” Fonteno said. “For example, we have created a sustainable, renewable version of perlite at half the cost.”

There are also samples of biocharblack charred products made from materials such as rice hulls, wood shavings, peanut hulls and wood chips. This char technology that improves poor soils is actually hundreds of years old, Fonteno said. “It holds nutrients very well and is good for sandy eastern North Carolina soils.”

And while biochar can be a costly process, the gas that comes off in the charring of the materials could be collected as an energy byproduct to mitigate the costs. “We’re testing biochar to understand its properties,” Fonteno says. “Also, when we see the viability of its use, commercial power plants that currently use bark and wood as fuels could be a good source of char.”

The Fox Hall greenhouse complex is the site of greenhouse crops and plant nutrition teaching and research, along with a large area devoted to the non-destructive study of root growth – the key in growing a healthy plant, Jackson said.

The mini-horhizotron (above) was designed to be a new way to measure roots in growth. Above, Jackson uses a larger version to observe how plants are responding to growth media.
The mini-horhizotron (above) was designed to be a new way to measure roots in growth.

And here is also where they use the mini-horhizotron, a three-sided, propeller-shaped pot. Unlike a conventional pot, where you would have to remove the pot to see what’s happening with the roots, the mini-horhizotron’s three windowed sides offer multiple plant-friendly views of how roots are faring in the substrates.

In designing the mini-horhizotron as a new way of measuring roots, Jackson said, “We started with a larger horhizotron, developed at Virginia Tech. We wanted to make a smaller version to look at smaller greenhouse grown plants. We made this redesign with removable panels to look at all three sides at the root system.

Above, Jackson uses a larger version of the mini-horhizotron to observe how plants are responding to growth media.
Above, Jackson uses a larger version of the horhizotron to observe how plants are responding to growth media.

“These are used for research collaboration and for teaching. This gives us the opportunity to test several soils and substrates, observe the plant’s response, and record the effects of water and fertilizer – all without disturbing or destroying the root systems.”

And lately they’ve modified it further, adding a non-glare glass through which to look and altering a side panel removal trajectory to protect the leaves of the plant when the panel is lifted off.

“This shows how fast they grow. The first three or four weeks are critical. This allows us to monitor growth and put numbers on it. There are now three times the surface area through which we can see the roots,” Fonteno says. “It’s almost like a plant version of an ant farm! It gets students excited to see what’s going on.”

The substrate lab is the largest university lab of its type in the world, Jackson said, adding, “Half the techniques used, Bill has developed himself.”

Yet, the two realized there was still a lack of knowledge in the area of engineering substrates. “We knew we needed to build a facility to do state-of-the-art substrate work and on a big enough scale to do the work commercially,” Jackson said. “We got $180,000 from Golden LEAF to build SPARC. The SPARC building was conceived and designed to do commercial-sized testing.”

And now, he says, “It is the only thing remotely like it at a university in the United States – possibly the world – to research substrates. The SPARC building is the next step to carry substrates work to the next level; it is the crown jewel in our program.”

The new space where the engineering of the substrate material takes place is by the Horticultural Field Lab, behind the JC Raulston Arboretum.

“It’s a dream come true for us,” said Jackson.

The SPARC is the home of a 50-horse-power hammer mill, 2-cubic-yard hopper with auger feed system, conveyer system, cyclone air handling system, substrate dryers and two different screening devices for separating substrate particle sizes.

A big red machine is the centerpiece. It includes the hammer mill, made by Meadows Mills Inc. in North Wilkesboro. It’s a pulverizer, where large hammers spin and bust materials into small particles.

“We look at all variables that go into particle size reduction,” says Jackson, who describes how a fist-size or smaller chunk of wood goes up the blue conveyer, then falls into a hopper, where an auger at the bottom of the hopper conveys the chunks to the hammer mill, where they are pulverized.

The SPARC process yields the varieties of substrates (above) to suit potting purposes and geographic needs.
The SPARC process yields the varieties of substrates (above) to suit potting purposes and geographic needs.

Settings on the hammer mill determine the consistency of the resulting material, such as shredded or chips or pellets. Particle size is adjusted by changing the screen inserted at the bottom of the hammer mill. As material falls through the hammers, they keep hitting it till it will fall through the chosen screen (there are different sizes of holes in each).

Then, air sucks up the product into the cyclone and sends it into a collection vessel. Big white bags above collect dust as air moves through.

“We also have a capability to run the material through more screening devices and shake, to sieve and fraction particles after they’ve been engineered,” Jackson explained. “This allows the construction of substrates from these particles into specific products for specific purposes.”

The SPARC has “tremendous potential for collaborative work among many, not just in horticulture,” said Jackson.

“The unique thing about this facility is its specific capability to examine many processing variables associated with grinding/engineering/constructing substrate materials from organic materials. The capabilities of this facility could be of interest to colleagues in forestry, wood products, soil science and ag engineering, to name a few. We are partnering with faculty from most all these departments to build a team of specialists to advance substrate science in ways never before attempted.”

Wood chips fed into this hammer mill will be pulverized and rendered into desired particle sizes via chosen screens.
Wood chips fed into this hammer mill will be pulverized and rendered into desired particle sizes via chosen screens.

There is not such a facility at any university that has the full capability as the SPARC, he said. It is because of this void in research facilities that they wanted to invest in creating such a facility, he said. “From root boxes to soil diagnostics to this facility – one can’t be done without the others to help ‘Atlas’ support all of horticulture!”

Jackson is also excited about what the new facility can do for the state’s economy, as he foresees “jobs created by current soil/substrate manufacturers, who may be making and selling new products based in part on this research, and money generated from organic materials that may be the next popular materials used in horticultural substrates – pine trees, agricultural wastes, storm debris, biochar.”

The premise behind the funding provided by Golden LEAF was the creation of new substrate materials/components made from local materials in North Carolina and around the region, Jackson said. “There are numerous companies and businesses in the state that make their living making and selling substrates. This state is the fourth largest producer of floriculture and nursery crops in the United States. And North Carolina has some of the largest pine bark substrate suppliers in the East.”

“It is my dream to help continue the long tradition of NC State being the most recognized university program for substrate research in the United States and one of the best in the world,” said Jackson. “The construction of the SPARC is testament to our commitment and desire to continue cutting edge research in substrate science.”

– Terri Leith