Reporter's notebook

Confab shows off startups, from AI-driven weeders and tree tubes to alternative fats

PLANETech conference in Tel Aviv brings scientists, developers, entrepreneurs and investors together to help solve climate, environmental, sustainability challenges

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The PLANETech conference held at Jaffa Port on June 18, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
The PLANETech conference held at Jaffa Port on June 18, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Weeds, the negative term commonly applied to unwanted plants, are a farmer’s enemy. They guzzle water, nutrients, and even light that are supposed to help crops grow.

So at this week’s annual PLANETech World conference in Tel Aviv — a meet-up of scientists, entrepreneurs, and investors interested in developing tech that can save the planet — this home gardener went first to a booth promoting a sustainable weed removal technology.

Other presenters at this year’s bash tackled subjects as diverse as finance, the challenges of introducing novel materials to market, Desertech solutions for a warming and increasingly water-stressed world, decarbonization, climate credits, and climate-smart agriculture. But it was a sustainable method to remove weeds — albeit one that is being developed for the vegetable farmer rather than the private garden — that caught this reporter’s eye.

AgriPass, established in Tel Aviv in March 2023, says it is “weeding the way” with a sophisticated tool currently in the proof of concept stage. AgriPass founder, CEO and CTO Guy Raz explained, “We are mimicking a human laborer but with 21st-century tech.”

Over recent decades, the go-to solution has been chemical herbicides, which kill the microbes that give life to the soil and to which some 500 species of weeds and counting are gradually becoming resistant.

The other method is tilling. A tractor-drawn plow digs down into the soil and turns it over, tearing the weeds out and burying them. However, this method releases carbon into the atmosphere by exposing organic matter. It tears apart the delicate bacterial communities and fungal networks that are so important for keeping soil and plants healthy. The result is often soil erosion and unhealthy, compacted soil, lower yields, and poorer ability to cope with extreme weather events such as flooding.

The only sustainable option is weeding by hand. But that is slow and involves high labor costs.

The company’s AgriPass machine, which will be towed on the back of a tractor and available in different sizes, is equipped with AI-powered sensors. These have been trained by machine learning to identify the weeds, map the terrain, and instruct the densely packed weeding heads on the bottom of the machine to cut the roots at their precise location—hundreds per second. The tractor’s movement then pulls them out.

The company is focusing on the vegetable market, Raz said, where production costs are high. Weeds tend to be annual, easier to remove, and limited to the first six to eight weeks after planting the vegetables. After this, the crops grow and overshadow competitors.

Raz said that while there are single solutions on the market for non-chemical weed removal, minimal tillage, and fast weed removal, nothing exists that combines all three.

Up a gum tree

Staying with plants, TreeTube seeks to provide a healthier environment for urban street trees, which all too often have to cope with underground infrastructure and a lack of air and water because of asphalt or compacted (solid) soil.

Trees provide multiple services, among them shade and cooling, increased biodiversity (a variety of living things), and absorption of noise and polluting carbon dioxide.

TreeTube designs and manufactures massive underground tubes from heavy-duty plastic into which the trees are planted.

A model of TreeTube. (Courtesy: TreeTube)

The tubes, which can reach three to five meters (ten to 16 feet) in diameter but are usually limited to 1.5 meters (five feet), are filled with high-quality soil. Air is constantly provided via narrow tubes that poke just above the surface of the pavement and feed into ribs built into the tubes.

The modular system, designed for each specific location, includes apertures that direct the roots to grow in a particular direction, such as away from sewage pipelines.

A special plastic barrier physically prevents roots from growing upwards, saving on the maintenance costs of repairing sidewalks pushed up and broken by roots.

“The trees think they’re growing in a forest,” said company co-founder Roni Cohen, adding that, as a consequence, they grow faster. He explained that air circulation keeps the soil cooler in hot weather and warmer in cold weather, while irrigation is directed into the tube, helping to save water.

The company was established in 2019 and already has hundreds of projects in Israel, with more in Holland and the Baltic states.

Cohen and fellow co-founder Jonathan Antebi were at the conference as part of their search for a strategic partner for global expansion.

A fat lot of good

The alternative protein market, which is trying to create products that taste like meat and fish but are neither, faces a major problem imitating animal fats, according to Gad Harris, the CTO of KaYama Foods, which was established in November in the northern town of Yokneam.

Harris, a chemical process engineer who has worked in the alternative protein market, explained that most plant-based products use coconut oil, which is not only 92 percent saturated fat (a cause of high cholesterol); it melts at only 25 degrees Centigrade (77 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with 55 degrees C (131 degrees Fahrenheit) in the case of real beef fat. “When you start to cook with it, it just oozes out,” Harris said.

He explained that KaYama Foods has developed a process based on natural ingredients to turn various healthier kinds of vegetable fat into solids that behave like animal fat.

These fats have no trans fats, a fraction of the saturated fats in coconut oil, and no unhealthy food additives. “There are no chemical modifications, hydrogenation, or E numbers,” he said. The fats can be produced with certain flavors and aromas and can carry Omega 3 and fat-soluble vitamins.

KaYama Foods has been creating fat samples in its laboratory and handing them out to potential customers. It will now scale up to a pilot product.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in Israel and overseas,” Harris said. “We are really feeling that the need is there.”

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