Water center at Fresno State cultivates new technology

The Fresno BeeJune 14, 2014 

The path to turning the San Joaquin Valley into a hub for agricultural-based technology may begin at the front door of the Water, Energy and Technology Center at Fresno State.

The multi-purpose center serves as a resource for existing companies as well as an incubator for companies working to solve some of the farm industry's most vexing challenges: reducing water use and energy costs.

Companies housed in the incubator are using everything from worms and wood chips for filtering waste water to injecting polymers into the soil to cut water use.

Center officials say the overall goal of the organization is to help nurture new technology related companies and create higher-paying jobs in the Valley.

"We are in an area where we can become a global leader in developing new technology," said Helle Petersen, director of the WET center. "And we have the perfect environment to do this."

The Valley, led by Fresno County, is one of the largest and most agriculturally diverse regions in the nation, growing fruit, vegetables, fiber, nuts and livestock.

The region supplies food for the nation and world, but also struggles with water shortages, environmental-protection challenges and high energy costs.

David Zoldoske, director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State, said tech companies are increasingly looking at the Valley's agriculture industry as an area to grow new business opportunities.

"Given the challenges we have with water, technology is going to be part of the solution," Zoldoske said. "And we welcome that."

To help attract those types of companies, the Central Valley Business Incubator began focusing on agriculture and energy technology three years ago when it located the incubator at the new WET center.

Funding for the center comes, in part, from federal, state and local grants.

The center's incubator is home to six companies, with two others on a waiting list. The products include a software program to help improve irrigation efficiency, sensors to measure moisture in a plant, and polymers injected into the soil to cut water usage by 50%.

Several of the companies are start-ups and one, Biofiltro, is an established company based in Chile.

Although new to the U.S. market, Biofiltro's waste-water cleaning system has quickly garnered attention from California food processors and dairy operators. The company already has more than 100 installations worldwide, including New Zealand, Spain, Mexico and Brazil.

Rafael Concha, chief executive officer of Biofiltro USA, said the company's patented technology involves the use of wood chips and worms to clean waste water from food processing plants and dairies.

The environmentally friendly and low-energy process is being tested at Fresno State's dairy, a cheese plant in the northern San Joaquin Valley and a west-side tomato processing plant.

At Fresno State's dairy, a small holding pond is filled several feet high with saw dust, waste water and hundreds of thousands of worms. The waste water soaks through the muck where the worms remove harmful salts. In about four hours, the water is safe for irrigating non-edible field crops like cotton.

Using Biofiltro's system, waste water from food processing plants can be used to irrigate food crops.

Sanjar Taromi, chief marketing officer for Biofiltro USA, said Fresno State's small system can clean at least 10% of the dairy's waste water. How much water can be cleaned will vary according to the size of the system.

"Our biggest system is 5 acres," Taromi said. "So they will vary, depending on your needs."

As a bonus, the worm's castings are harvested and sold as a nutrient-fertilizer.

Other incubator clients are working on creating an agriculture application for their products. For example, Fresno-based Aqua Cents injects water-absorbing polymers into the ground to hold moisture at the plants' root zone.

"These polymers look like grains of sand, but they can absorb 400 times their weight in water," said Aqua Cents CEO Tom De Lany, who has a sister company, All Commercial Landscape Service.

De Lany said tests show the polymers can cut water usage by 50%. He is using the incubator to help connect with potential investors and expand his company.

"To me, the incubator is a portal for new business and new ideas," De Lany said. "This is about trying to take these ideas and companies to the next level."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, brodriguez@fresnobee.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.

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