Charles Bensinger: Training the Trainers

Charles demonstrates a photo bioreactor to the class

by Sabrina Wolfe

Ramping up a new industry faces a daunting educational challenge. Where does the trained labor force come from? What is the curricula that prepares the leaders and trainers for something as innovative as algae biofuel production? The National Algae Association recognized this dilemma when they chose Charles Bensinger as their Director of Education. A biofuels expert by professional experience as well as passion, his task: to assemble a course of education that could be duplicated around the country to educate the algae production workforce of the future.

To accomplish this assignment Charles has put a pilot program together within the highly regarded Sustainable Technologies Center at Santa Fe Community College, a school known for its progressive approach to energy consciousness, in a progressive community, within an energy conscious state. It is also no coincidence that New Mexico is prominent on the map of ideal algae cultivation regions.

Heading up the Biofuels Degree programs at SFCC, Charles Bensinger is an inspiration to his students as well as other faculty as he fights the good fight with a sincere dedication to the environment and our sustainable energy future.

Charles and his class celebrate the first output of an ethanol distillation device

Q: What are your goals for the Biofuels Program at SFCC?
A: I would like to inspire people to take an interest in biofuels at the least and, more importantly, I would like to inspire a whole group of folks to take on the job of producing biofuels in the state, as entrepreneurs, as workers in the industry, as finance people… all those different parties that are necessary to create an industry. I would hope to inspire and generate that industry.

Q: What inspires you about the potential of algae?
A: Well, three or four years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have thought of working with algae, yet today I am and it’s a fascinating organism. It has everything to do with us being here today, and all the plant life as well. It makes 50 to 60% of all the oxygen, so it’s played a pretty critical role in the evolution of life on this planet. And I believe it may play a very critical role in the future of life on this planet, because if we don’t do something about our greenhouse gas emissions soon then we could be history here pretty quickly.

We can, in theory, create algae farms just about anywhere, and we can harvest that algae, rich in carbohydrates & lipids, into ethanol or biodiesel or green gasoline or biojet fuel, and we can make a whole lot of other things out of it too, like plastics and neutraceuticals and health foods. It has a marvelous, extensive range of potential applications that are tremendously useful to society and can help solve some of our problems. These are just some of the reasons why I’m fascinated by algae.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your history and how you came to this point in your career.
A: Well, I’ve always been interested in renewable energy of all kinds. I first got involved with solar and wind power. I was quite involved in the NM Legislature trying to get some legislation in place for NM to help people build solar energy systems and eventually wind farm systems as well — utility-scale wind farm systems. So I did that for a number of years, but then I realized that nobody was really addressing the fuel issue, the transportation issue.

So, I created a non-profit group called Renewable Energy Partners of New Mexico with my business partner, Richard Mason. Back in 2004, we created the first biofuels station in Santa Fe with an E85 dispenser (at Horseman‘s Haven Phillips 66 on Cerrillos Road). And then the following year we decided that we’d like to have a biodiesel station as well, and there was another gas station, a Conoco station that was available and we rounded up some money for that. We got about $100,000 from the Department of Energy. We worked with the Energy & Minerals Department to install the Baca Street Conoco Station, which had two biofuel dispensers added.

I designed the graphics on those dispensers in order to educate people about the different biofuels available at those two dispensers, the E85 (ethanol 85%), the B20 (biodiesel 20%) and the E10 (ethanol 10%), and those really were the country’s first triple biofuels pumps. So our plan was to introduce biofuels to people and to see if folks would be willing to give them a try because we realized that people are really pretty sensitive about their cars. Other than their houses, their cars are usually their next biggest expense, so would they be willing to put a non-petroleum fuel in their cars? And it took some education for sure, but it turned out that it worked pretty well and people realized that it was better for the environment, better for their cars, in some cases less expensive, and in some cases they achieved better mileage with the biodiesel. So that was 2004 and now here we are in 2009, five years later, and we have a steady clientele that use those biofuels.

Charles (kneeling) and class visit the site of the historic Aquatic Species Program, in Roswell, NM

Q: How did you move from terrestrial biofuel feedstock to algae as a feedstock?
A: Well, after we introduced biofuels to people and found that a wide variety of people were willing and able and interested in using those biofuels, then we wanted to move to the next step which was to produce them in New Mexico. So that kind of led me into looking at the different options out there for ethanol and biodiesel.

Obviously we’ve got restaurant oil for biodiesel and there are a lot of agricultural waste products that we can use to make ethanol, but algae is of course the most intriguing of the feedstocks. So that is what brought me into the algae world and I really needed to know about that. And so began a multi-year process of personal research trying to learn about algae and what the benefits and the obstacles are, what the promise of algae is and the potential.

Q: Where do you see the use of algae five years from now?
A: There’s over half a billion dollars being invested in the research of algae right now by some very big players, some very large investors, by the US & Canadian and other governments as well. So with that kind of commitment from the private sector and from government, they must sense that it has a great potential.

I think that’s the way to get an industry started, with that kind of massive investment. It seems to me that eventually that’s all going to pay off. I think four to five years is a good time frame to establish algae biofuels, and I think we could see pretty substantial algae operations probably in three years actually. But in five years we should have a well-developed initial commercial industry and we should see aircraft fuel & transportation fuel in fairly good quantities being made available.

Q: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
A: In five years I would like to see myself involved in a number of major algae projects. I’d love to be overseeing the development of algae projects in all kinds of interesting places like the Caribbean and Europe and Canada and across New Mexico. I’d like to see myself involved with numerous teams of folks building these projects all over the world.

And I’d love to be involved with the educational process still, and would hope to be still teaching some classes here at the SFCC, but also going out and connecting with my various ex-students who are now managing very large algae projects all over the world.

Over riding all this is realizing that we’re making a substantial contribution to reducing our dependency on foreign oil and giving people hope about the future. We don’t have to be tied to this non-renewable, highly destructive, resource called petroleum that engenders a lot of human suffering in the extraction of that particular product and I’m hoping that we can switch to algae as a feedstock, to create a much more benign source of fuels and chemicals for our use.

Q: You have a passion for sustainable energy. What drives this passion?
A: What’s really important to me is how we can make a difference in terms of our dependency on petroleum fuels. When I hear about the environmental damage that’s being done and will be done in places like Canada with the tar sands and with the displacement of native peoples in South America and the pain and suffering that’s involved with the extraction of oil around the world — the destruction of the environment in underground aquifers, and just a huge amount of destruction to come from continued drilling and exploitation of resources. I just feel a personal urgency to do something about that and so I guess my passion here is how I can make a difference to back off that need for petroleum for transportation purposes and for whatever other purposes its being used for.

What’s also terrifically rewarding to me is to see the interest in the people in the class here and the enthusiasm and the caring and concern also that I’ve experienced here. Obviously, we have a long way to go, and if we are going to make a dent in anything out there, its going to take a lot of us working really hard and being really creative and remaining highly committed and going the extra mile. And so I guess that I would like to encourage others to take up the charge here and to help us move forward with this very important job that we have here to do, to rally together and try and make a difference and to try and help our communities and our country, our nations and our planet, find viable alternatives to our dependency on petroleum. —A.I.M.

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