New solar-powered factory for low-cost water tanks, molded products arrives on Big Island

  • The machinery used to mold large plastic products using 100% solar energy is seen at NELHA.(Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Built and operated by LightManufacturing, Inc., (LMI) the Big Island’s newest manufacturing facility uses patented technology to mold high-capacity water tanks using pollution-free solar thermal energy. The company reports the system can also mold aquaculture tanks, road barriers, kayaks and other products which are typically imported into Hawaii. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority’s Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology park is home to the island’s newest manufacturing facility — an outdoor factory that molds large plastic products using 100% solar energy.

Built and operated by LightManufacturing, Inc., (LMI) the factory uses patented technology to mold high-capacity water tanks using pollution-free solar thermal energy. The company reports the system can also mold aquaculture tanks, road barriers, kayaks and other products which are typically imported into Hawaii.

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LMI deployed its equipment in mid-October to a 1-acre site at the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology (HOST) Park and had the solar-powered factory up and running by December, when the firm molded its first 290-gallon water tank using the power of the sun and without burning any fossil fuels. The company’s Solar Rotational Molding system uses an array of silent, sun-tracking mirrors called “heliostats” to reflect more than 100,000 watts of free solar heat directly into the molding chambers. A national leader in solar power, Hawai‘ derives nearly 16 percent of its power from the sun, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, and is a perfect environment for this breakthrough use of “raw” solar energy for industry.

“Manufacturing is critical to diversifying our economy away from its dependence on tourism and enhancing the resiliency of our islands. NELHA shows that government can create the conditions for innovative businesses to work with Hawaii’s natural resources in a way that makes Hawaii better. LightManufacturing’s innovation with solar energy to manufacture needed goods without having to ship them here and ultimately reduce waste is an important step along this transition,” Gov. David Ige said.

LightManufacturing Inc. CEO Karl von Kries noted that large capacity, commercial-grade water storage and septic tanks in Hawaii are expensive for two reasons: the cost of expensive imported fossil fuels for traditional on-island molding, or the well-known costs to import bulky products from the mainland.

“By eliminating fossil fuels, we can reduce costs, massively improve sustainability, and improve access for customers to critical products like water tanks,” he said, adding that one of LMI’s long-term goals is to use plastic, such as what washes up on Hawaii beaches that community groups clean up regularly, that would otherwise find its way into landfills and mold it into useful products, thereby addressing another one of the Big Island’s challenges with waste.

“We have some prototype solar-powered plastic recycling systems which show good promise,” said von Kries. With no fossil fuels required for power, the Solar Rotational Molding system is designed to make sustainable manufacturing a practical reality, especially once plastic can be sourced from a renewable resource.

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Gregory Barbour, Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority executive director, said the park is excited to host the new containerized technology that is easily deployable on a small footprint.

“This will be LMI’s first facility based on the successful demonstration site in California. Its innovative use of solar heat through sunshine to manufacture important items locally addresses several ongoing Hawaii Island waste and cost challenges,” he said.

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