The A.I.M. Interview: UC San Diego’s Dr. Stephen Mayfield

by Stephen Bolotin

Professor Stephen Mayfield is someone you should probably know about if you want to keep up with the key players in San Diego’s burgeoning renewable energies sector. Algae geneticist extraordinaire, Professor Mayfield was the scientific founder of Sapphire Energy, now building a mass production facility in New Mexico, and co-founder of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, the hub of commercially targeted algae research in the US. SD-CAB, as it’s called, is leading the effort to connect commercial enterprises with the best available science in the pursuit of scalable, fungible algae-based biofuels.

Professor Mayfield is also designing and implementing bioenergy training programs — both at the community college and university levels – that will educate and prepare the future workforce of the bioenergy sector. Recently, as part of the Green Innovation Challenge, the Department of Labor in California funded a grant program called the EDGE Initiative (Educating and Developing workers for the Green Economy), to give a head start to the effort of attracting scientific and technical talent and educating them to fulfill the anticipated labor demands in this new domestic energy economy. The very first EDGE participants are now completing internships and graduated with certificates.

A year after his first interview in the Algae Industry Magazine, I sat down with Professor Mayfield to get the update.

2011 EDGE Biofuels Science Technician Certificate Students and Faculty

2011 EDGE Biofuels Science Technician Certificate Students and Faculty

What’s the story behind how the EDGE Initiative got started?

It all began when the Secretary of the California Department of Labor came down to visit us and find out why algae bioenergy was growing so fast in San Diego. Before leaving, she asked, “If I had one message to take back to the governor, what would it be?” I said, “You should tell the governor to plan for success.”

By that, I mean, if the pilot facilities being built today that will come online in the summer of 2012 are successful, the next iteration of that won’t be to build another pilot facility but to build commercial facilities – many commercial facilities. And we need to have in place a training program for all the people who are going to work in those commercial facilities. So rather than wait and see if the pilot programs are successful, let’s anticipate that they’re going to be and stay ahead of the curve by building a training program now.

So she went back to the governor, and apparently he thought this was a good idea, and they came up with this program called the Green Innovation Challenge to start the process for bioenergy training. They actually funded six different programs under this initiative in addition to ours in bioenergy. They also funded projects in solar energy, biogas, and energy efficiency, among others. Of the $19 million in total awarded, EDGE got $4 million.

Would you call this need for a ready workforce the primary bottleneck in bioenergy?

It is not today, but it will become that. Of course, when you relieve one bottleneck, that causes yet another one.

Right now, the biggest bottleneck is to actually build a demonstration facility; we don’t have one anywhere on the planet that is really demonstration facility size. We do have small, pilot projects that people have built. We know we can grow algae, we know we can harvest it, and we know we can extract oils and turn them into fuel. So that part of the process is done.

The next question is: can we take that to scale? That’s what’s being built right now: Sapphire’s building one in New Mexico, General Atomics is building one in Texas, Synthetic Genomics is building one in Texas, and there are also plants going up in other parts of the world including France and Australia.

The minute those come online and we relieve that risk factor of can we go to scale, then instantly the bottleneck becomes: who’s going to work in those once we get them built.

Obviously, the energy sector is so large and so rich that, once these work, the money will be there to build them. Then it becomes do we have the capacity to man these facilities with a trained workforce. We’re not thinking ahead several moves; we’re thinking ahead one move.  And that’s about as good as we can do.

How would you define a ready workforce? What positions need to be filled?

The most positions that we employ right now are the research scientists – about 600 people just here in San Diego. That’s doing the basic research in Biology, Engineering, and in Chemistry.  But that will not be the biggest number of employees.

The biggest number of employees will be on the production side of things: so-called “green collar” jobs. These jobs will be a fusion, part agriculture and part energy sector. They won’t exactly be roughnecks. There won’t be oil wells out there and drilling rigs for them to work on. But they won’t exactly be agricultural workers either, because there won’t be plows and tractors to drive around. It will be kind of an interesting combination of those two.

To what extent has the EDGE Initiative, then, been implemented?

Well, there are three parts already in operation:

The first is a certificate program run here at UCSD that also includes some faculty from San Diego State University, and that program is to train the scientific technicians. Those are the folks who are partly in research and development, and also partly in the analysis side of production. Because when we start to do production, we’re going to need people who have a scientific background. For example, they’re going to have to be able to measure the water chemistry; they’re going to have to be able to look at the pathogens and look at the nutrient utilization and availability.

So there’s a science part to growing algae that is not just agriculture. And even in agriculture there is a lot of analysis that is not done by the farmers, but by ancillary companies that come along and help them on specific tests. The certificate people that we’re training here at UCSD will fill those roles.

Second, there is another certificate program being run at Mira Costa Community College, and this program is the sort of boots on the ground, actual physical production of the algae: the people out there in the ponds, inoculating the algae, caring for and feeding the algae, and making sure that stuff grows well. They’ll also be part of the harvesting, but they won’t be part of the processing, at which point it becomes more of an industrial process and less of an agricultural process.

The program at Mira Costa, once fully developed, will be rolled out in the Imperial Valley, Allen County, and elsewhere in the agricultural areas here in California.

Third, EDGE funds industry internships at SD-CAB, Sapphire, General Atomics, Carbon Capture, and others. Along with this work experience comes a 40-hour online immersion program designed to orient participants with the industrial biotech sector, particularly in terms of how to transition into it and move up the career ladder once inside.

The final aspect of the certificate program will be a Masters of Advanced Study, and this last part of the program will come online in 2012. The MAS program is being developed at UCSD with the idea of training the energy entrepreneurs that will build the ancillary companies that will help drive the entire bioenergy sector.

EDGE certificate students got hands on experience growing algae

EDGE certificate students got hands on experience growing algae in the v-bag system in SD-CAB’s greenhouse. Shown above is Phaeodachtylum tricornutum growing in the same system.

How will the EDGE Certification program be expanded to reach additional candidates?

Part of our agreement with the California Department of Labor is to make this a web-based program. So this means that in California, from the community college level to the university level, institutions will be free to pick this up and teach it. We will set this up as a turn-key operation, meaning all the lectures, all the lecture notes, all the slides, all the practical, all the laboratories, and so forth will all be in one package that we can deliver to colleges and universities. Now that’s a big challenge, because we’re both developing these programs and developing the packaging of these programs for distribution.

Fortunately, we get two tries at it. This year was sort of practice round number one. We concentrated much more on the developing of the curriculum, developing of the course work, developing of the labs – we have those in pretty good shape now. This fall and winter, we’ll be refining those, making them better, and teaching them again. Next summer, we’ll be packaging this for distribution.

What roles are the BIOCOM Institute and CleanTECH San Diego playing?

BIOCOM and CleanTECH are affiliates in this along with San Diego Workforce Partners.  Their job is really to integrate us with the commercial operations to make sure the course work stays relevant. So unlike most courses that we build at the university that are designed by faculty with the assumption that this basic training will be required for our students, vaguely for some job that they might have in the future – that could be Calculus, that could be History, that could be Organic Chemistry ­– this one’s a little different because in this program, as we are building the curriculum, we reach out to our commercial partners and specifically ask for input into curriculum design. BIOCOM and CleanTECH asked them, “What do you want as an employer? What should new employees come with?”

We took that basic information in, used that to build the syllabus, and then gave that information back to our commercial partners, and they looked at it and said, “This looks great. Add this. Take away this.” It’s been an iterative process, between the feedback from the commercial partners and us to build this training program and curriculum, and BIOCOM and CleanTECH are the two groups who facilitated that.

What feedback has been received in respect to the certificate programs and internships?

We haven’t received any feedback yet from our commercial partners, but we except to receive that soon on how they view the interns.

The students, however, have expressed just how very thorough the certificate program is, and nothing like a survey course or general exposure as with some certificate programs. Between the 180 contact hours in the classroom and 320 contact hours in internships, it’s an ideal combination of real world experience and scientific knowledge. And that’s not to forget that it’s all paid for by the State of California.

Shortly after this interview, I got in contact with General Atomics for this article. They offered this candid feedback on their first four EDGE interns:

This program attracted a diverse pool of candidates and truly challenged the staff in the selection process. A variety of experience level and scientific backgrounds made it a bit difficult to choose only 4 candidates but the selected candidates seem to be doing well overall. They have been trained in several laboratory techniques for outdoor algal cultivation. It is interesting to note that different interns have varying degrees of ‘learning curve’ or ‘runway’ and differing views of what it means to be an intern at a biotech industry lab. Two of the interns are stellar with respect to reliability, enthusiasm and seriousness of this opportunity. Overall, the program is going well.

What’s next for the EDGE Initiative?

First and foremost is to refine what we’ve already got.

Second is to build the third tier of the biofuels training certificate programs [(the Advanced Training in Biofuels Production Certificate – M.A.S.), which combines advanced science training and business training in coordination with the Rady School of Management here at UCSD. They will learn not only about what’s involved with the primary producers of biofuels, but also about the ancillary companies that play equally vital roles.

So it’s not just technical training, it’s training entrepreneurs to go out there and start one of these companies. This master’s level program presents at once the biggest unknown with the most enormous opportunity.