A team of students from Lewis & Clark College near Portland found a use for the vegetable that people either love or love to hate: kale.
The team, called Kale Tek, figured out a way to extract wax from kale leaves and produce a waterproofing agent that can be sprayed, dipped or rubbed on a wide range of material.
Kale Tek was one of 10 semi-finalists competing in Portland State University’s Cleantech Challenge earlier this month. The college-level competition was held in conjunction with the annual Oregon Best Fest event, which highlights the work of innovative entrepreneurs. Many of the energy, water and waste-stream products and start-up companies supported through Oregon Best’s collaborative network of university researchers have agricultural applications.
The Kale Tek team didn’t win the college competition; that went to Ento Foods, which produces oils and protein powder from meal worms and crickets. Team members Yesenia Gallardo and Charles Wilson won the $10,000 grand prize and a $5,000 “best pitch” award. During Best Fest, they cheerfully offered bites of dried bugs to people who stopped by their booth.
Kale Tek, however, may have attracted more nods of recognition. Team member Emily Kelley acknowledged hearing many wisecracks about finally finding a use for kale. It’s commonly grown by small farm operations, used in juice and hailed for its supposed health benefits, but critics say it’s bitter and more hyped than wholesome.
There’s an “I Hate Kale” Facebook page and an “I Hate Kale Cookbook.” In an appearance on the Conan O’Brien show a few years ago, comedian Jim Gaffigan cracked that he looked at a can of bug spray and it read, “Made with real kale.” He also joked that kale’s ubiquitous market presence was a plot by the trendy grocery chain Whole Foods. “What else can we sell these idiots?” he imagined the store’s leaders planning.
Another comedian, Marc Maron, said there are only two ways to eat kale: Sadly or self-righteously.
But kale, with its dark green, crinkly appearance, also is notable for the way water runs off its leaves. Called the “lotus effect,” it’s a result of the protective wax layer on kale and some other plants.
The Kale Tek team, formed in a entrepreneurial “Technology of the Future” class at Lewis & Clark College, was intrigued by putting those properties to use.
They learned to extract the plant’s wax by placing leaves in pressurized liquid-gas system. Kelley said the team recovered 1.5 grams of wax for every 50 grams of wet kale, and about 2.5 grams of wax per 50 grams of dried kale.
Finding more kale to process won’t be difficult, Kelley said.
“Kale is well known, abundant and easy to grow,” she said. “Kale is everywhere — especially in Portland.”
In other results, the Oregon company TryEco LLC won the $10,000 Cascadia Clean Tech Prize. The company makes a starch-based, biodegradable product called AgriSorb, which absorbs 200 to 1,000 times its weight in water and releases it while the plant is growing.