Director of the SFCC Center of Excellence for Biofuels, Luke Spangenburg

Director of the SFCC Center of Excellence for Biofuels, Luke Spangenburg

The vision of developing a community college degree program to train a high technology algae workforce was launched at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) in 2009. Charles Bensinger assembled the program, with state funding, to start this trained labor pipeline to the Sapphires, Solazymes and Algenols of the world.

Luke Spangenburg was a graduate of that first class in 2010. (I fully disclose that I graduated from that first class as well. —ed.) Though Mr. Bensinger has moved on to other pursuits, including research and writings about algae, Mr. Spangenburg returned in 2012 as Director of the SFCC Center of Excellence for Biofuels.

With generous contributions from national labs and industry partners, the algae lab and cultivation facilities at SFCC have grown remarkably through the years, much of that under the direction of Mr. Spangenburg.

We spoke with him recently to see how the program has evolved…

You were in the first algae biofuel program at SFCC six years ago, one of the first programs of its kind in the country. Now that you are running things, how has the algae program changed over that time?

Well, we started out in a small-scale lab in an urban development area near the college, led by a renegade instructor – an environmental thinker. We began by growing algae and making biodiesel.

Just before I graduated and moved to New York, I started New Solutions Energy that, at the time, was focused on photo-bioreactor development and the patent process. Dean Randy Grissom, who was putting plans together for a Sustainable Technologies educational center here, said that if it didn’t work out for me in New York, come back and work on getting the Biofuels program in the new building up to speed.

I couldn’t find the work I wanted in sustainability on the East Coast, so I came back.

Over three short years we’ve really developed the sustainability vision here. The SFCC Trades and Advanced Technologies Center is a thriving demonstration of innovative and established approaches to the food, water and energy challenges we are facing.

Then we were named a Center of Excellence (for Biofuels) and we expanded the program into Workforce Training modules along with our certificate and degree programs. We established training modules and an array of systems for algae cultivation, anaerobic digestion for methane, biodiesel, biomass gasification and ethanol. We’ve also built out our algae lab with a variety of water treatment equipment, so we can train wastewater operators, as well as biofuels technicians — which is a good fit with the energy industry.

The program has attracted a diversity that is incredible for STEM-related fields. We’ve really focused in the last few years, as a college, growing this infrastructure in relationship with the diverse populations of New Mexico and beyond.

Now we’re moving into National Science Foundation research with New Mexico EPSCoR (New Mexico’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). We are part of the Bioalgal Energy team, along with a number of other university and lab teams in New Mexico. Jose Olivares and Richard Sayre at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the New Mexico Consortium Team, Pete Lammers at New Mexico State University, David Hanson of the University of New Mexico and others.

The one guy who really made a difference was Bryn Davis (Sapphire Energy). Bryn kind of mentored me along. He’s an amazing guy, full of experience and the stamina required in the algae industry. So we are really appreciative of the support and depth of our industrial and research collaborations, advising us as to how to prepare their future students and employees.

What started as kind of a renegade program – with students sitting in a lab and doing cell counts – has grown into students now doing valuable research in water, food, and energy systems.

This college, as you’ve seen it grow, is in a pretty incredible building. We’ve just completed a (solar) thermally-heated growing environment for all of our reactors and anaerobic digesters, so we can grow a variety of organisms, including extremophiles, year round. This was built by our students and instructors. We’ve been able to do all kinds of progressive projects, and the college has been very supportive of that. Randy (Grissom, now SFCC president) said to me, “If you can figure out a way to do it, do it.” I have to admit I love my job here and the great team we have that is always willing to work hard.

Are there local businesses that you are supporting as well?

New Mexico Algae is a start up growing Haematococcus for astaxanthin, and they’re only seven or eight miles from here. Innovative Organic Solutions International has an operation close to our campus where they are making soil amendments from algae. We have our students engaged in and working in those projects. This semester we even have two of our students working for Los Alamos National Labs on algal projects. We are always supportive of economic development opportunities and provide input to potential projects if requested. We also have a student that has created a nonprofit TISARE (Tropical Institute of Agriculture and Renewable Energy) that has supported a local tribal farm project.

Luke Spangenburg gives a tour of the SFCC Algae Lab for US House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (rt., in blue). She visited the Algae Lab at SFCC recently to extol the virtues and value of their community college programs.

Luke Spangenburg gives a tour of the SFCC Algae Lab for US House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (rt., in blue). She visited the Algae Lab at SFCC recently to extol the virtues and value of their community college programs.

What is the next major development step for this program?

The next step is to develop a Bioenergy Institute which will integrate our existing systems and scale up with industrial collaborators. The SFCC Trades and Advanced Technologies Center has a solid infrastructure base with our campus solar electric, solar thermal heating and cooling, and rainwater catchment reuse, which was recently awarded LEED Platinum.

Our wastewater treatment plant will be modified to expand our biogas and water reuse capacities, as well as for biomass crops to support the existing biomass boiler on the main campus. We also have a Greenhouse Management program with a controlled growing environment for our aquaponic and hydroponic systems that is also scaling up to provide more food on campus. The focus now is about demonstrating biological, chemical and mechanical systems that can plug into micro-grid applications. A critical element is utilizing the potential of the microorganisms.

Does the program have any connection to the local public high schools?

We actually have a community collaboration that recently established an Academy of Sustainable Education within the local Santa Fe public schools. We provide onsite training at our facilities – and have an on-campus charter high school. Both of the programs are dual credit towards earning a college degree. One of this year’s graduates – a 17-year-old who will earn his college degree – came here at 14 and has since won a science excellence award from the Santa Fe Institute, and has been an incredible peer mentor in our programs. He will be the student speaker at graduation and is off to engineering school this fall. We also have a collaboration going between the Girls Scouts and the National Genome Research Center here in Santa Fe. With young engaged people like this we have great hopes in the future generation, and the inspiration they provide us.

How do the students pick a direction for their study, with all of the possibilities algae represents, and with the shifting away from an emphasis on biofuels?

Somehow there’s a magic to seeing the life in algae. There is a deep mystery to what’s going on in the cell, and a curiosity of “what can we do with this?” We instill that in the students, and never bias them by saying it’s a biofuel, or it’s this or that.

Biofuels at competitive costs are probably a long way out, if you’re talking about liquid transportation fuels, but I think where algae fits in is, there are so many things you can do with it now. The range of biomass applications and bio-chemicals are extensive and growing rapidly, we’ve done phycocyanin extractions, astaxanthin extractions – we use algae to remediate a variety of wastewaters. So we’re more focused on how the systems actually work together, rather than simply, how much algae can I grow in a liter?

I think that what we are going to look to algae for in the future are materials such as animal feedstock, high-grade plastics, medical products, health products and biochemicals. I think these will replace a lot of the focus on growing strains to make fuel in the foreseeable future. And I think you’ll see a lot more cities, and schools, take an interest in what can be produced with their wastewater resources.

I don’t think we’re going to see too many standalone algae operations using fresh water, unless you’re producing a high value product. The future is going to be handling wastewater. If it’s dairy effluent, oil and gas effluent, human effluent, anaerobic digester effluent – those are the areas that we’re looking at. How can we find drivers to make algae have a value in the process chain? Because algae’s unique, it can be very robust. It can handle a lot of processes that create value and environmental benefits.

How do you teach students about high value applications for algae?

We expose the students to current and developing algae operations to sharpen their critical thinking skills and understand the potential applications and algal properties for downstream uses. They actually have to use Algae Industry Magazine as a resource tool for updates on the industry. In one assignment we ask the students to run the numbers for an algae business model. Quite often it inspires them to start growing and experimenting here in the lab and on their own.

I’ll give you (some) examples:

A former student, Nick Petrovic, who’s started a new company, Apogee Spirulina, went through the program and then did a summer internship at a spirulina farm in France. We’re now in the process of developing a one-acre algae farm here, and he’s starting with a quarter-acre operation. He’s already been producing product and has a market for it. The operation only runs eight months a year, but that fits his lifestyle. The economics for him on that quarter acre make it worth the investment. Collaborations such as this build capacity for our students and community.

Another student is working here in the lab on the production of astaxanthin – quietly underneath the radar.

Our Spirulina Club president asked about extracting phycocyanin, so we gave him a paper on it. Twenty-four hours later we came in and there it was, azure blue in the liter bottle — he’d extracted it! Our students find that extractions are simple, because we use proven technologies from the food industry.

Nancy Pelosi, currently the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, made an appearance at your lab recently. What was that about?

It was a real pleasure to host her here. She was here with (New Mexico Congressman) Ben Ray Luján. She came here to talk about the importance of community colleges, and how they are the backbone, in her opinion, of education. And she was here to recognize the excellence of this school, the capacity building we’re doing, and the high-level collaborations. It was an amazing day for our students and our algal community to come together.

Speaker Pelosi feels that the best money that the government can spend, with the biggest return, is in education. And if you look at community colleges, it actually is about community education. Schools like this are an open door for anyone to expand their horizons and get inspired.

Creating educational access for underserved populations, and providing something that’s engaging for them – such as sustainable technologies — is a big win for everyone.