Michael Rigolizzo, who may or may not be the best thing that’s happened to Sparta, Georgia, in generations, drove into town for the first time four years ago and found himself charmed. To be charmed by downtown Sparta requires a generous spirit and a vivid imagination. Once upon a time, Sparta was the seat of Hancock County, one of the most prosperous in the state thanks to its cotton crops. Today Sparta is still the county seat, but Hancock County, 68 miles west of Augusta, is now the second poorest out of Georgia’s 159. One in three of its 8,640 residents lives in poverty; the median household income is less than $25,000. (That’s household, not per capita.) In downtown Sparta there’s a pharmacy that sells single dip ice cream cones for a dollar, a gym you can join for $17 a month, and a secondhand furniture shop open three days a week. There’s also an H&R Block and a couple of places to get chicken wings. But most of the storefronts—23 out of 37, to be precise—stand vacant, either boarded up or posted for sale. Or in ashes, like the old beauty supply shop, the inside of which still contains piles of charred wood.
Rigolizzo, an entrepreneur who lives in New Jersey, was in Georgia to visit his son, an Army private at the time stationed at Fort Gordon, just down the road toward Augusta. A history buff and dues-paying member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rigolizzo had heard about a 19th-century house for sale in Sparta, catty-corner to city hall, so he thought he’d check it out. Maybe it could be a gift for his son and future daughter-in-law.
“Sparta was like a time capsule to me,” Rigolizzo, 52, says now. “You could look and see what was, and you could see what it could be again.”
Not long after returning to New Jersey (he didn’t buy the house), he got a call from a colleague, who, coincidentally, had heard about a proposed solar power project at an old landfill in Sparta. Intrigued, Rigolizzo returned to town in March 2013 to propose an alternate idea based on a technology his company, Duckweed USA, had licensed. It was supposed to be a quick trip, but he ended up staying in Sparta for three and a half days, becoming acquainted with its longtime mayor, William Evans Jr., and getting a feel for the place. “I spent a lot of time just walking around and talking to people, which you can do in the South,” Rigolizzo says. “Can’t do that where I come from in the Northeast. Somebody’ll taze you or shoot you.”
Duckweed, for which Rigolizzo’s company is named, is the world’s smallest flowering plant, and it grows, well, like a weed. Under ideal conditions and with nothing blocking its path, a mass of duckweed covering 10 square centimeters can grow to cover one hectare in less than 50 days, a 10 million fold increase. Duckweed prefers standing water, where it’s often mistaken for algae. But algae tends to sink as it ages, while duckweed floats.
Duckweed is thought of mostly as a nuisance, something that dirties ponds, clogs filters, and bullies out other vegetation. It feeds on the nutrients provided by naturally occurring organic matter in lakes, ponds, and other wet environments, and does particularly well where there are high levels of nitrogen and phosphate. These nutrients appear in large quantities when humans enter the picture with their sewage, farm runoff, and industrial wastes. In fact, duckweed feeds so well on waste that it can actually clean water teeming with pollutants. Given the right conditions, duckweed can grow thick enough on the surface of water that it keeps mosquitoes from breeding.
But duckweed can do more than just serve as nature’s Brita. When Rigolizzo visited Sparta in 2013, his company was developing a technology to convert duckweed into oil—oil that could, conceivably, be refined to power a car, propel a jet, or heat a home. Duckweed USA, using its patented system, would subject the plant to high pressures and temperatures, transforming the mix into the chemical equivalent of petroleum. With the world heating up, biofuels made from fast-growing plants like duckweed could help reduce greenhouse gases and humans’ carbon footprint on the planet.
As he drove around Sparta—captivated by the city, its people, its architecture—Rigolizzo was also captivated by the green layer sitting atop the ponds at Sparta’s wastewater treatment plant. “The volume was just unbelievable,” he recalls. “You’d think there should be a golf tee out there.” Where other people might see an annoying layer of scum, Rigolizzo saw a perfect opportunity to apply his company’s nascent technology. “We could use the existing wastewater treatment facility, which was just loaded with nutrient-rich water and covered with beautiful green duckweed,” Rigolizzo says. “And that’s how the whole idea got started.”
Nearly three years after Rigolizzo’s first visit, on February 17, 2016, the news went public in a press conference at the town’s temporary police station: Duckweed USA would build a collection system adjacent to the 20 acres of settling ponds at Sparta’s wastewater treatment facility. The duckweed atop the ponds would be harvested and converted into fuel—as much as 16,000 gallons a day—that would be sold to refiners.
Best of all, at a time when it seems every manufacturer in America is seeking a subsidy or tax break, Duckweed USA would ask for not a penny in return for its $4 million investment. In fact, according to the contract between Duckweed USA and Sparta, the company would divert one-third of its revenues to the city, in the form of monthly checks. The company estimated those payments would total $4 million a year—this for a city whose annual budget is just $1.25 million. “Imagine what that does,” Rigolizzo later told me. “You don’t even have to be good at math. That infusion in a small community can do great things.”
There was more. Rigolizzo estimated that Duckweed USA would create up to a dozen new jobs over the course of a year. For his part, Mayor Evans predicted the operation would indirectly lead to another 250 jobs within five years. Equipment would arrive in 30 to 45 days and production would begin in the summer of 2016. With Sparta and surrounding Hancock County having lost many of its largest employers over the past three decades—the sawmill, the furniture factory, the garment factories, the hospital, the catfish farm—it seemed duckweed could help fill those gaps. Mayor Evans summed it up: “This brings hope.”
Today, more than a year after the press conference, which was covered by two local TV stations, there is still no miracle in Sparta. Rigolizzo blames the state and says he’s ready to roll, but as details of his controversial business past have come to light, they’ve given fodder to skeptics in Sparta and Hancock County, who’ve been down this road before. In the 1970s a catfish farm was built in Hancock County and hailed as an economic savior for the town. And like the catfish farm, the duckweed project is part of a local political battle that has divided black and white.
It was a Revolutionary War soldier who gave Sparta its name in the late 1700s, inspired by the “bravery of its inhabitants in their struggles with the Indians,” according to the 1982 book Black Boss: Political Revolution in a Georgia County by the late John Rozier. By 1810 the county was majority black due to the rise of the cotton gin, which helped turn Hancock County, the entire state of Georgia, and much of the South into cotton- and slave-dependent areas economically.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Hancock County was home to 430 slaveholders and 8,137 slaves. After the war, freed slaves became sharecroppers or tenant farmers, working the same land they had under bondage. By 1880 the county was producing more cotton than it had been before the war, and Sparta’s economy was thriving. The city had a hotel, two newspapers, 11 general stores, and seven doctors. By Georgia standards of the late 19th century, it even had somewhat of a progressive reputation. Black residents owned land in higher percentages compared to surrounding counties, while black Hancock County families produced prestigious educators, such as Henry A. Hunt, who became an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But in the early 20th century, cotton prices plummeted as the boll weevil ravaged crops. The mechanization of cotton picking in the 1940s further left black Georgians without work. By the birth of the civil rights movement, Hancock County had become one of the poorest counties in the United States. In 1964 the population had dwindled to fewer than 10,000 people, down from a peak of more than 19,000. And despite being 75 percent African American, Hancock County had not a single black elected official. Then, in 1965, a man named John L. McCown came to Sparta.
McCown was a 28-year-old high school dropout, but he was dynamic and driven and already had a strong resume as a civil rights leader. Working with the Georgia Council on Human Relations to fight discrimination in the state, McCown had been on the lookout for a place where black residents were under-represented in public office. He found that in Hancock County. When McCown moved to the area—bringing with him a “highly organized black political machine,” according to a 1971 article in the New York Times—change accelerated rapidly.
McCown and another black resident were elected to two of the three spots on the county board of commissioners in 1968, making it the first U.S. county in the 20th century to be politically controlled by African Americans. That same year, Edith Ingram was elected in Hancock County as one of the nation’s first black probate judges. In 1966 only 52 percent of voting-age black people in Hancock County were registered to vote; within eight years, 96 percent were. By then 16 out of the 18 elected positions in the county were held by African Americans.
“One of the main focuses of my father and of the movement for the empowerment for African American people was to help them to gain confidence in themselves,” says John Michael McCown, John L. McCown’s son. “To get them to understand that they are capable of controlling their own political and economic destinies.”
It wasn’t a completely amicable transition of power. Whites were used to being in charge, and now they no longer were. They were used to having officially segregated schools. No more. Protesters were arrested, homes were burned, and threats were exchanged. Jimmy Carter, then the governor of Georgia, intervened in 1971 to stem a literal arms race between the police and McCown’s followers. Early in the morning of Ingram’s first day as probate judge, she received a call. “There was a white guy on the other end of the phone,” Ingram recalls today. The man said, “When you walk up the front steps of the courthouse, we’re gonna shoot you in your back.”
McCown’s arrival coincided with millions of dollars of federal money pouring into the area for economic development. The young organizer helped blacks register for Social Security, welfare benefits, and federal housing loans they had historically been denied. Among the projects set up by McCown under the East Central Committee for Opportunity (ECCO), a community development organization he founded, were a cement plant, a concrete block factory, a lumber company, and a low-income housing project. But the crown jewel was the catfish farm.
ECCO opened the catfish farm in July 1970 with $500,000 from the federal government and the Ford Foundation. The farm was built on 357 acres of wooded land in an unincorporated area of the county called Mayfield. It was supposed to become the largest catfish farm in the world, producing 40 million fish per year and bringing secure jobs to Hancock County, particularly to its black population, more than half of whom were living in poverty. Varying accounts predicted the farm would generate annual profits of $200,000 to $1.3 million, money that could be used to further rehabilitate the county, where the median income of black residents was just $3,640.
But in 1975 the catfish farm shut down without making a profit. Some blamed mismanagement; others claimed the fish were poisoned by local whites who didn’t want to see the farm succeed. The following year John L. McCown died when a Cessna plane he was piloting crashed. At the time of his death, the Justice Department was investigating both McCown and ECCO for alleged misuse of federal funds, accusations that halted the infusion of outside money into Hancock County. McCown’s dreams for an economically rehabilitated Hancock County never came to pass.
Forty-two years later, out of more than 3,000 U.S. counties, Hancock is ranked one of the 40 poorest. Life expectancy is in the bottom 10 percent for women and bottom 25 percent for men. Sparta itself has become so sparsely populated—an estimated 1,515 people called it home as of 2015, down 30 percent since 1970—that the local prison now houses nearly as many people as the rest of the city.
Hancock State Prison, where 300 people work, is one of the biggest employers in the county. Another is Verescence, which opened a plant in 2002 at the town’s industrial park, and today employs 245 people to decorate perfume bottles. But most people looking for work these days venture outside Hancock. “Kids graduate from high school; there’s no jobs here,” says Rick Joslyn, president of the Sparta-Hancock County Historical Society. “They’ve got to go someplace else.”
And though John L. McCown has been dead for more than 40 years, a legacy of mistrust between black and white residents here is still palpable, at least in local politics. The NAACP in 2015 described Sparta as a city divided: where the median income of black households is half that of whites, where 37 percent of black households receive food stamps or SNAP benefits while only 2.7 percent of white households do, where 58 percent of blacks own homes and 85 percent of whites do. It also described a county where, 50 years after desegregation, more than 96 percent of the students attending public school are black, and 96 percent of students attending the local private school are white.
The NAACP’s descriptions were part of a lawsuit it filed against the Hancock County Board of Elections, which in 2015 had attempted to purge 187 mostly black voters from its registration list. The effort came just ahead of that year’s mayoral election, which pitted the incumbent, William Evans Jr., who is black, against a challenger named Allen Haywood, who is white. While 187 voters may not sound like many, in tiny Sparta they represented 19 percent of all registered voters. The New York Times editorial board characterized the purge as “echoes of Jim Crow” and used Sparta as an example of the consequences of the watered-down Voting Rights Act. The editorial made it sound like the pre-McCown days had come back to Sparta.
The reality was more complicated. A group of citizens in Sparta, both black and white, has been trying to get Evans—who has been mayor since 1992—out of office for years. They point to the crumbling houses, the lack of jobs. They point to a loan from Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs that was supposed to develop housing for the elderly; DCA says nearly $180,000 of the loan was misspent and needs to be paid back (though the city’s attorney is contesting the state). But they usually just point to the sorry state of Broad Street, and the fact that the mayor, whose position is part-time and pays $15,000 a year, hasn’t been able to fix it.
Absentee ballots, claims Harrell Lawson, who grew up in Hancock County in the 1950s and 1960s, were the main reason Evans kept getting reelected. That’s why Lawson, who is black, joined the effort to remove voters who didn’t live in Sparta. He told me the so-called voter suppression was not a purge but a cleansing. “We were not targeting blacks,” Lawson says. “We were just targeting people that did not live in the city of Sparta.”
Mayor Evans and Edith Ingram, now 75 and retired, represent the remnants of the “Mayfield Mafia,” as some people refer to McCown’s allies. Her father was the first black member of the Hancock County Board of Education. Her brother Robert worked for ECCO, managing the catfish farm before it closed. Mayor Evans is her cousin. “People don’t want to hear the history, don’t want to believe the history,” Ingram tells me. “The white folks don’t want you to believe the history.”
Robert Currey sees things differently. He bought a house in Sparta in 2002 with his wife and spent six years restoring the large six-column Greek Revival. They moved into the house in 2006 and have since started two organic farming businesses that supply farmers markets, supermarkets, and restaurants in Atlanta. Currey, who is white, tells me that the black community in Sparta embraced him “in a way that I’ve never experienced before.” He believes the idea of a black-white divide in Sparta is overblown. “I would suggest that there’s racial tension in America,” he says, “and Sparta’s no different.”
Election officials settled the lawsuit, restoring voting rights to nearly three-quarters of those who were taken off the registry in Sparta. Haywood still got more votes, but when a felony from his past was disclosed, he was declared ineligible, and a special election between Evans and a third candidate was set for March 1, 2016. The duckweed announcement—promising all those jobs for the community—came just 13 days before that election. Duckweed USA was speaking of turning the whole city around with millions of free dollars, but because the news came from Evans, there were Spartans who were skeptical. Nevertheless, the mayor was re-elected.
Duckweed is not a new discovery. In Vietnam farmers have long grown duckweed as feed for ducks and fish. In Taiwan duckweed has been grown and sold as feed for pigs and poultry. In Burma and Laos the Wolffia arrhiza species has been consumed for generations. In Northern Thailand duckweed is used as an ingredient in omelets and soups.
In recent years, scientists have begun exploring large-scale applications for duckweed. A company called MamaGrande is converting 150 hectares of wastewater treatment lagoons in northwest Argentina into a duckweed biomass farm. The duckweed will grow rapidly on the wastewater, cleaning it. Then the plant will be collected from the surface, dried, fermented to lactic acid, and converted into a biodegradable plastic, all on site.
GreenSun Products, a private company based in Kentucky, has pilot projects in Southeast Asia and Africa teaching farmers how to cultivate duckweed in backyard ponds to feed to their animals. Two different companies in Israel are working on marketing duckweed as a new “superfood,” touting its digestibility and high protein content. Even Ambassador Andrew Young is a proselytizer for its nutritional value.
Eric Lam, a professor of plant biology at Rutgers University, is excited for the future of duckweed. “Not only is it untapped, but I think there’s an urgent need for something like this, which is more sympathetic to the needs of the planet,” he says. Lam’s lab explores the genetic diversity of duckweed, searching for strains that are well suited for particular applications. The more protein, the better it is for animal and human consumption, and the higher the starch content, the better it is as a base for biofuels, which are made from contemporary organic matter such as animal waste or plants (as opposed to fossil fuels, which take eons to form).
Philomena Chu, a PhD candidate in Lam’s lab, says that duckweed is more sustainable than corn as an ethanol base for biofuels because it uses less freshwater and requires less cultivation and fertilizers. Compared to most other plants, it has less lignin, a structural polymer found in plant cell walls that is very hard to break down. And because duckweed floats, you can just skim it off the top of the water to collect. Plus, Chu says, “We grow duckweed on poop!”
Michael Rigolizzo first heard about duckweed from a man named Angelo Errichetti, who was mayor of Camden, New Jersey, from 1973 to 1981. (Errichetti gained notoriety in the early 1980s, when he served 32 months in prison on federal bribery and conspiracy charges.) Rigolizzo says that he and Errichetti, who died in 2013, worked on real estate projects together. It was through Errichetti that Rigolizzo met Rudolph Behrens, who had a patent on the technology used to convert plants such as duckweed into oil.
Rigolizzo, through Duckweed USA, the company he formed in 2012, licensed the patent from Behrens, but the relationship soured. In the fall of 2015, Duckweed USA sued Behrens and two other defendants, claiming they were infringing on the patent the company had licensed and were trying to “put it out of business.”
In the suit, Duckweed USA claimed that its technology allows it to produce “over 30 times the amount of oil per acre than the nearest competitor” by replicating (and speeding up) the process by which hydrocarbons are turned into petroleum in nature. Key to the “hydrodynamic reformation” is a device called the “Linear Venturi Kinetic Nozzle.” “By simply pumping the wet biomass”—the duckweed—“through the LVKN nozzle, the hydrocarbons (plant and waste biomass) are converted to alkanes or clean, sulfur-free oil,” according to a description in the lawsuit. The company called it the “Alchemy” system, and the first of its kind would be in Sparta, Georgia.
Duckweed USA also touted a separate system that would involve greenhouses containing an “aggressive growing blend of algae.” Each greenhouse would “independently cultivate and process algae into bio-oil,” serving as an “‘oil well’ that never dries up.” The company would debut this process, called the “Aurora” system, over a 62-acre development in Winslow, New Jersey.
To pay for a prototype, Duckweed USA received a $45,500 loan (at 25 percent interest) in March 2015 from EPA Marketing Management, a company owned by a man named Edward Abraham. The protoype was to be located at Rutgers University’s Aquaculture Innovation Center in Cape May, New Jersey. It would serve as proof-of-concept to attract more investor dollars to fund the operations in Winslow and Sparta. But the prototype never became operational. According to the lawsuit, Duckweed USA built out as much as it could at the Center, but was waiting for Behrens to deliver “LVKN pump/nozzle assemblies and the ‘artificial intelligence’ to operate the system.” Moreover, the lawsuit claimed, Behrens and Abraham and another defendant were conspiring to capitalize on the system themselves.
The lawsuit was finally settled out-of-court this past February, but not before the judge ordered Duckweed USA to pay Abraham roughly $63,000 to satisfy the loan and settle the issues between them. But Duckweed could not pay. On January 11 Rigolizzo’s lawyer wrote Abraham’s, stating they had no cash, asking for more time to pay, and adding that they were willing to put up Rigolizzo’s 30 percent ownership stake in an 11-acre parcel of land as “security interest.” Abraham’s lawyer said thanks but no thanks and proceeded with pursuing a contempt order against Rigolizzo. In a January 2017 motion arguing against the order, Rigolizzo’s attorney wrote, “On November 29, 2016, there was a negative balance in Duckweed USA’s bank account. At no time between then and now has the balance in the account been greater than $0.” (According to Abraham’s attorney, Abraham has since been paid.)
The lawsuit did not come up at the press conference in Sparta back in February 2016. Nevertheless, the announcement caught the attention of Paul Niznik, an energy consultant. Niznik keeps an eye on every biofuel project happening in the U.S., and when he read the Sparta press release, he says, he tried to contact Mayor Evans to express his skepticism.
Niznik, now a consultant at Argus Consulting Services, which advises companies on energy investments, says that Duckweed USA was capitalizing on the idea that fast-growing plants have potential to be a raw material—feedstock, as it’s called—for fuel. But he believes there is no way Duckweed USA could produce oil at the price it said it could, less than $1 per gallon.
Niznik says there are more-established companies that have spent years attempting to make commercially viable fuel from aquatic plants and have so far been unable to do so. At least 27 universities have algae-to-fuel research programs, and ExxonMobil’s former CEO Rex Tillerson (currently U.S. Secretary of State) said in 2013 that the petroleum giant was still 25 years away from succeeding, despite a $600 million effort over three and a half years.
Like algae, duckweed grows very quickly in ponds. But with crude oil cheap at $50 a barrel, so far there are no commercial plants or pilot projects in the world currently converting duckweed to fuel, according to Niznik, who says Evans never called him back.
The explanation of the science in the Duckweed USA press release reads: “Our revolutionary process converts the organic compounds of the biomass into alkanes, which are chemically identical to the petroleum oil used to make gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and heating oil, and we can finish it into those products for less than $1 per gallon. The big advantage is that it is virtually a one-for-one conversion. One organic molecule becomes one alkane molecule.”
I showed this to Stephen Mayfield, director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology. “Duckweed is fast growing,” he wrote in an email, “but the biomass is mainly cellulose and water with some protein, carbohydrates, and lipids. Alkanes are 100 percent hydrocarbons, so to claim their process is a one-to-one conversion is completely false. You cannot turn cellulose or carbohydrate into an alkane any more than you can turn lead into gold.” Eric Lam from Rutgers agreed. He took a look at Duckweed USA’s website and described their technology as “the usual hype with a lot of promise but very little technical or scientific/engineering details in support of their claims.”
Back in Sparta, a resident who was concerned that Rigolizzo’s project would cost the city money alerted the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, which told the mayor and Rigolizzo that the project cannot move forward until Duckweed USA has proven its system won’t negatively affect the workings at the wastewater treatment plant. Rigolizzo told me Duckweed USA is creating a new report for the EPD, as requested, and expects to get approval within 30 days of submission, which he said would happen this month.
When I showed Rigolizzo the reactions from Mayfield and Lam, he maintained that what Duckweed USA is doing is so radical, it’s bound to be questioned. He says expecting the scientific data to be on the website is like taking the tour at Coca-Cola and expecting to leave with the recipe.
But more than a year since the press conference, Sparta is still waiting for its duckweed-fueled transformation. Nobody has been hired. No equipment has been brought in from New Jersey. No ribbons have been cut. But the project still has believers.
Edith Ingram thinks that Haywood and his group are obstructing the duckweed project simply because it originated from their political opponent. “If people would put as much energy toward making something positive happen as they would trying to tear something down because of who’s involved in it then we might be able to pull ourselves out,” she says.
Rigolizzo also blames Haywood and his cohort for the delays, specifically for alerting the EPD to the proposed project. “Ever since the election, they’ve done everything they can to really hurt the mayor and slow down his efforts to do anything,” he says. “It’s like what people are doing with Donald Trump right now. ‘Let’s investigate everything and everybody.’”
But he says the project is far from dead. Rigolizzo says he has already invested between $750,000 and $1 million in the initiative—about two-thirds of that in equipment and another third in research and development—and projects a revenue stream of $6 million to $10 million per year, with at least $2 million going directly to the city annually. When we spoke in late March, he said he expected movement by September at the latest. “I’m sitting on inventory that can immediately be put into production,” he says. “It will not take me long to become operational once given the green light.” In early May, when I asked him about his attorney’s acknowledgment last fall that the company was out of money, Rigolizzo assured me that he had a backer. “It’s a bank out of Texas, and I’m not going to disclose who it is.”
In order for Duckweed USA to succeed, it has to do something that has never been done before, something that even ExxonMobil, a company worth $350 billion, couldn’t do—create a commercially viable fuel from aquatic plants. “What we did is much like Edison did with the light bulb,” Rigolizzo once told me. “Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, right? He really only made it commercially viable . . . That’s what Edison did, that’s what we’ve done.”
Mayor Evans declined comment, except to say that the media has been unfair to him in the past due to a “white slant.” None of the city council members I spoke with had any new information on the project, though they all agree that the duckweed project is the mayor’s baby. One council member, Faye Sherrod, told me that she didn’t think the duckweed project would ever happen (although her signature is on the contract with Duckweed USA). “I don’t see it,” she says. “Everything they say, it don’t never come to pass.”
This article originally appeared in our June 2017 issue.