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Engineering Algae-based Bio Fuel: Valcent CEO Glen Kertz (Part 7)

Posted on Wednesday, Nov 26th 2008

SM: Is there anything else you would like to discuss that is relevant to your company?

GK: There is another project that is driving part of our company economics. That is the high density vertical growing system; we are rolling it out as a commercial product. We just signed another licensing agreement last week. We are putting one in Australia, one in the UK and one in Alberta, Canada.

SM: What is your vertical growing system?

GK: We grow our algae vertically. Before I started with algae I was very interested in vertical farming, particularly in crop production. We have a dynamic high density vertical growing system. The plants are in columns going upwards. It is similar to a dry cleaner’s rack, where the entire thing moves. We have large panels suspended downward that are covered with plants.

In a very small footprint we can grow a lot of plants. This enables us to use very little water to grow them, and it also reduces the labor costs to manage the growing. This is a good solution to some of the global problems we are facing. I live in El Paso, Texas and I am very close to where much of the country’s lettuce is grown. It is harvested and driven to New York and Chicago. We spend 8,000 to 12,000 calories in transportation driving this crop across the country, and it will take several days to get there. When it gets there it has the nutritional value of one calorie.

We have utilized so much of our farmland for homes, malls and recreational lakes that food farming land that has not already been burnt out is not cost effective to reach. Now we are dependent on producing food in foreign countries to import it here to feed ourselves, and there is no need for this. We have plenty of land and resources here to grow our own stuff. We can grow locally.

As the planet’s population approaches 6.5 billion people, we cannot rely on classic practices for crop growing indefinitely. We have to do intensive agriculture, and it needs to be sustainable and renewable. This vertical growing system, when applied to lettuce, requires one-twentieth the amount of water to grow a head of lettuce needed in the field. It is in a controlled environment. I can limit the amount of pesticides and herbicides. I can do it completely organic if I want to, and I can have it in the parking lot of a grocery store where you are going to buy it.

SM: I did not imagine your vertical growing system could be scaled small enough to be applied in that manner.

GK: Our panels are simply hung down, and each has trays or pouches. In these trays are plants which grow. The panels are set in motion via a conveyor system that lasts most of the day. It is constantly re-orienting the plants to the sun and takes them through stations where water and nutrients are supplied. Whatever is not used by the plant is brought down and picked up through a series of drains. It goes through a filtering and sterilization process and is then re-used. We are not losing anything to the ground.

SM: How much do these systems cost?

GK: It depends on the size you want to build. We usually build one-eighth of an acre units, and those cost $1 million. The economics of it are such that with the right crop, they are very profitable to operate.

SM: You started naming some places in which you have sold systems. Are those million-dollar systems as well?

GK: Yes.

SM: So that is where your current revenues are coming from?

GK: Exactly.

SM: Is the business of vertical crops also going to be a part of this company, or are you also going to spin this one out and do the algae business separately?

SK: We have not made that decision yet.

SM: Congratulations on your success, I wish you all the best.

This segment is part 7 in the series : Engineering Algae-based Bio Fuel: Valcent CEO Glen Kertz
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