Recently, Catherine Cruz of Hawai’i Public Radio interviewed LightManufacturing CEO, Karl von Kries to learn more about the outdoor factory using 100% solar energy to mold plastic products such as water tanks and septic tanks.
Catherine Cruz [00:00:02] All this week, we’ve been celebrating innovation in our schools, and today we go out in the marketplace, the natural energy and Tech Park on the Big Island is one of only two places in the world that is using new solar technology to manufacture reusable plastic products that normally would be imported into our state. Think water tanks or septic tanks? We talked to Laurence Sombardier, deputy director of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii, and Karl von Kries, of LightManufacturing about a green innovation project on the Kona side of the Big Island
Laurence Sombardier [00:00:35] We are the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. We administer the Hawaii Ocean Sciences and Technology Park, and we are ideally situated for solar projects and we have a variety of natural assets, including the deep sea water. But the solar resources here are really abundant. They’re one of the highest in the US. In fact, they’re about as generous as the solar resources in Phoenix, Arizona. And so we’ve had a variety of solar projects over the years. One of them was the one that you visited, Catherine, the sole focus, concentrated photovoltaic project. But we’ve had others. We’ve had a concentrated solar project on four acres, which has been repurposed now to a desalination project. We’ve also had a variety of PV projects, energy storage projects, and of course, the one where the most known for is OTEC – Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. And this latest project from LightManufacturing – we’re really excited to see them come on board. Its a solar manufacturing project.
Catherine Cruz [00:01:46] Karl jump in here, because I understand that original project that I visited, you know, many moons ago was taken down to make way for your factory.
Karl von Kries [00:01:55] Yeah. So LightManufacturing is a bit of a twist on the traditional what people think of as the most common application of solar. You hear solar in your mind almost automatically fills in electric – solar panels, PV photovoltaics, which is all great. But what we do is different. We’re using concentrated solar thermal energy heat to replace the use of natural gas or fossil fuels in industrial processes. Specifically, our first application is for the molding of large durable plastic objects, specifically things like water tanks. So we have a 50 heliostat system that concentrates up to 100000 watts in real-time of solar heat on a mold that rotates with food-grade plastic inside of it. And that’s melted. 100 percent of the plastic is melted into a large water tank. So we can do this without the use of fossil fuels and we can do it with factory units that are small and deployable to great places like our new location at NELHA, which is in fact the second place in the world that this technology has been deployed. And so we’re really grateful to be there. And it’s been, you know, the staff and the team been super helpful. And as Laurence says, the solar availability is just fantastic. So we’re on the Big Island and we’re happy to be here.
Catherine Cruz [00:03:19] And so you just launched recently. How’s it been going?
Karl von Kries [00:03:23] It’s been going great, again, because we are under the NELHA umbrella, they handle a lot of the permitting issues and other sorts of the complexities like such as interfacing with government, and the state. That’s been fantastic. The staff has been super supportive. The site itself is just fantastic as well because there is really good solar availability and we’ve been able to set up the new factory in a matter of a few weeks. We’ve been making 290 and 500-gallon water tanks already in quantity with larger products coming online soon.
Catherine Cruz [00:03:57] So these water tanks, are these for use in residential homes or are they more for commercial applications?
Karl von Kries [00:04:03] All the above. These are great for catchment, water storage, other classic applications. And, you know, one of the reasons on the Big Island is because there’s a lot of water catchment needed there and there’s a lot of other applications that we’re looking forward to, like septic tank use or replacing of cesspits with septic molded products. So it’s a good environment for a lot of demand of what we can make. And again, the solar availability super high. So we looked at it as a perfect second location to deploy to, and it’s going really well. So we’re happy to be there, right by the Gateway Center, which is also a fantastic facility.
Catherine Cruz [00:04:39] So it’s really cutting-edge technology and maybe you can talk about that. I mean, because when there’s something new, a lot of times there aren’t the regulatory steps, you know, because it is a new animal and maybe they aren’t sure about emissions or whatever, you know, was that difficult?
Karl von Kries [00:04:54] Well, what is great about, LightManufacturing technology is that it has an aim to be very sustainable and it uses just solar, so, you know, even though it does use plastic, which is something that people look at and sometimes frown upon, but there is no doubt that plastic tanks are extremely valuable for septic systems as well as for water catchment, all of which are important on the island here. So, you know, it does allow a more sustainable version of these products. It addresses the high cost of shipping, which is now carbon footprint, decreased drastically because we’re not shipping from the mainland at this point. And we hope that at some point we’ll be able to address, in some sense, the waste challenges on the big island in the sense that these tanks could be using or reusing plastics, which would otherwise go to landfills. So there’s a little bit of R&D that would need to happen with respect to that, but we do hope that we would be able to use and reuse plastic.
Karl von Kries [00:05:59] Right. When you rotational mold plastics, you’re just warming them to the point where they can fuze together. So we’re not burning plastic or creating emissions from them through that process itself – it is very sustainable and benign. And then, of course, we’re replacing the use of fossil fuels entirely. Right. We’re not burning natural gas or kerosene or anything. And so you have huge cost savings because those things don’t have to be imported into the island economy, and you also get rid of all the pollution associated with that. You know, no matter how cleanly burning fossil fuels are, you’re still contributing to greenhouse gas warming and you’re in some cases, creating particulate emissions, carbon monoxide, all kinds of things. All that goes 100 percent to zero with our process. So that’s great on its face. And again, these are durable, long-lasting products, not things like ephemeral plastics that are used once and disposed of. And as Laurence alluded to, we are working hard to look at ways to ingest some post-consumer waste into our molding process. Now, we’re not there yet, but we’re working really hard and hope to have stuff this year that we can bring to the island as well. So with that, you have the possibility of sustainable factories, extremely deployable, small and medium scale, can go out throughout the Pacific Island chain and provide access to these really important health-improving products like water tanks, potentially septic and potentially – this isn’t there yet – ingesting post-consumer waste into some of these usable reusable products. That’s the goal and that’s the dream. And we’re doing some of that already right here on the Big Island, which has been very exciting for the whole team.
Catherine Cruz [00:07:32] Well, I know that the Big Island has an issue with the cesspools. So, yeah, if you can provide another alternative for that, you know, with that 2050 deadline in mind.
Catherine Cruz [00:07:42] On the Big Island alone, I think about 100,000 throughout the Hawaiian island chain. So 50,000 are just on the Big Island. And that’s a real problem if you have to be bringing all those in from the mainland or molding them with fossil fuels locally. But, you know, we’re here to learn also, you know, Catherine. So one thing is we’re hoping to hear from the public and saying, look, if you know about products that are relatively large, plastic, durable objects that, 200 to 500 of these are used or needed a year, we want people to reach out to us at the bigisland.lm.solar website and tell us about that, because, you know, we’re here to try to serve local needs and we’re, you know, wanting to discover what applications there are for our technology. We know about water tanks. We want to hear what else, perhaps in agriculture, fisheries, or other areas. So it’s going to be an exciting year of our learning and then working to supply what the community needs.
Catherine Cruz [00:08:33] I recall, you know, there was a time when the Varg was particularly bad and the acid rain, I think, was causing a problem with the water catchment systems, you know, that had nails. And, you know, the rust was creating an issue for the water. But I imagine that if you’ve got a plastic container, that wouldn’t be a problem.
Karl von Kries [00:08:52] Yeah, it’s true polyethylene that we use FDA’s compliant food-grade material. So we’re bringing on just really high-quality stuff used for toys or for, you know, for foodware, that kind of thing. And so you have a really high quality, very chemically inert material that doesn’t corrode or rust or have those issues. And again, you know, anything has costs, right? You know, aluminum has a cost. Metals, wood, no matter what, you’re making things out of, you have to look at the whole lifecycle cost of using that material. And so we’re very aware of some of the issues around plastics, particularly in the Single-Use world. But, you know, our technology is able to use the current plastics that are available, like these food-grade materials I described and also future plastics that we hope to see – the plant-derived, starch derived, that kind of thing. So we’re not wedded to stuff that’s coming out of oil. We’re looking to all kinds of inputs, including bioplastics and again, post-consumer stuff in the future.
Catherine Cruz [00:09:49] Well, when I was reading up on the potential products that you might be producing, kayak’s caught my eye.
Karl von Kries [00:09:54] Yeah, we thought of things, large planters, architectural features, and we know there’s a number of constituencies in the communities that have their own waste streams and their own requirements. So, you know, we’re going to be interested in hearing from the resort and hotel communities, again, agriculture, fisheries. We think each of these constituencies has waste streams that are unique to them and also product needs that are unique to them. So we’re hoping to get to a close circle, you know, a closed-loop economy with some of these potential partners where we can both alleviate the waste stream issues, but also potentially bring products that are having to be imported and produce them locally. And obviously, we have to go step by step. We’re going to take the things that make the most sense first, but we think there’s a lot of potential there. So we’re just excited to hear from folks and learn what there is that we can contribute to.
Catherine Cruz [00:10:43] Yeah, I can imagine, you know, if folks are getting into aquaponics, those tubs, you know, whether they be large or small, that maybe that’s something that’s in your future.
Karl von Kries [00:10:53] Exactly. We’ve heard that. Yeah. Hawaii is really the first, and particularly the Big Island, is the first step; we anticipate to be in many locations. And that includes, you know, through the rest of the Hawaiian chain, up to Tahiti, possibly Guam, other places that have similar logistical challenges and local waste streams, as well as local demand for use for durable products that we may be able to meet. So it’s just the beginning of what we think is going to be an expensive rollout. We’re excited to start.
Laurence Sombardier [00:11:21] And Karl, you might want to add to that one of the purposes of situating the LightManufacturing project at NELHA is the ability for folks to come and visit the demonstration, you know, see the process in action. So, yeah, that’s always a good thing to do. And you can see it actually from Queen Kaahumanu Highway. As you drive north and south, you should be able to see the heliostats concentrating solar power onto the containerized rotational molding system.
Karl von Kries [00:11:53] That’s right. And we’re organizing tours in coordination with the Gateway Center so that our team can have some idea of, you know, when folks are coming by. So there’s going to be a sign-up process where we can group people together and get it kind of in an organized way. But, yeah, we’re definitely going to be encouraging folks to come by and learn about the process and so there will be a sign-up link for tours through us to the Gateway Center on our website. We have a specific to Hawaii website, which is bigisland.lm.solar, not dot com, by the way. So we’re looking forward to meeting people in person.
Catherine Cruz [00:12:26] That was Karl von Kries of LightManufacturing and Laurence Sombardier of Energy Lab, Hawaii. They were talking about a new green venture underway now on the Big Island.
[Original posting of interview on HPR, The Conversation, may be found here.]