OC native: fueling the future?
Biofuels nearing feasibility
Former Orange resident Glen Kertz may hold the key to the energy crisis and global food shortage.
Kertz has worked for more than four decades on a system that started out as a way to produce more food in a small amount of space. His method of vertical farming has evolved into a possible solution to the United States’ dependency on oil that is financially feasible.
His patented Vertical Growing System (VGS) has the potential to grow 20 times the food per acre than would be produced by traditional methods.
“I’m a plant geek,” said Kertz. “I’ve been messing with green things for 40 something years.”
Imagine clothes hung on a conveyer belt at the dry cleaners. That is basically the principal of the VGS. Instead of clothes, 10 foot plastic sheets are lined with lots of pockets in which lettuce; radishes, cabbage, carrots and others can be grown in. The conveyor belt insures that all the plants get an equal amount of sunlight.
Computers manage the water and nutrients fed to the plants.
Growing in a closed environment, no pesticides or herbicides are needed.
Modification of the VGS has produced the Biofuel Reactor, which grows algae to be processed into vegetable oil for fuel. His method will yield fuel that will be competitively priced to gasoline, is “eco friendly” and won’t be cutting into the food supply. Kertz said that just one tenth of the land mass of New Mexico could produce enough vegetable oil to fuel the entire nation.
Kertz, who has been inventing since the age of seven, has received over 20 U.S. and International patents which were all developed while he was a resident of Bridge City.
Three years ago he moved to the El Paso area and along with investors, started Valcent, a publicly traded research and development company to continue work on the Vertical Growing System he had started when he lived here. Kertz is CEO and president of the company.
What started Kertz thinking about growing food vertically was how much space was going to waste with normal field planting. He saw vertical crops as a viable way to increase crop production in a small area.
His method also greatly reduces the water needed for crops and does not require arable land, so it could also be used in desert environments.
Using small one eighth acre modules, crops could be grown in urban areas such as roof tops of apartment buildings, which would also cut down on shipping costs by having food grown closer to its destination market. This would also allow food to maintain more of its nutritional value by reaching the market fresher.
Last week, Valcent released news that its first commercial eighth acre module is almost complete and will be planted in February with the first harvest expected in March.
That covers the food shortage, now for the fuel crisis.
Kertz has developed a closed loop bio-reactor that grows algae which can be processed to produce vegetable oil.
There are actually about 20 companies working on different methods to grow algae. According to Kertz, it has been known for some time that algae could be used for oil production. The problem has been how to do it where it was economically feasible. Even the simplest, cheapest, open pond method which could produce 20,000 gallons per acre per year out paces the 18-28 gallons per year an acre of corn produces. Palm generates 700-800 gallons an acre.
“Algae are the fastest growing plants on the planet,” said Kertz.
“Algae will reproduce its self every 24 hours. Some species reproduce up to six times a day.”
The problem with open ponds is the opportunity for contamination by different strains, plus, the sun only reaches the first couple of inches in depth so algae can’t be grown any deeper than that. With the vertical method, the algae is pumped to the top of the system and then gravity brings it down keeping the “slush” circulating where all of it gets equal sun. Once the algae reach the density needed, then half of the content can be harvested each day in a continual harvest. Kertz expects to produce around 100,000 gallons per acre each year.
“With the closed loop system, no water is lost to evaporation. The only water lost, is that bound into the plant in the oil,” said Kertz.
By being selective, Kertz can tailor the carbon chain to the type of fuel needed.
The process also helps clean the air as carbon dioxide is needed for growth. “Most of the CO2 comes from the air,” he said.
Occasionally they supplement it to control PH factors.
“[Algae] sequesters the greatest amount of carbon dioxide.
Actually, that’s how I got into it at first,” said Kertz, “trying to sequester CO2.” Plus you get the added bonus of the oxygen produced by the algae. He suggests the bio-reactors could be placed next to factories that emit green house gases.
By products, once the oil has been extracted, can be used as feed stock, fertilizer or fermented to make more fuel.
Kertz began experimenting with plant cultures as a teenager and became increasingly consumed with plant physiology leading to plant cell culture studies. That dedication may be producing one solution to two of the world’s greatest problems. Not bad for a little kid, in his own lab, in Orange, Texas.