Patrick Dobson (L) with geothermal researchers from the Center for Scientific Investigation and Higher Education in Ensenada, Mexico during his visit as a Fulbright Specialist.

Patrick Dobson (L) with geothermal researchers from the Center for Scientific Investigation and Higher Education in Ensenada, Mexico during his visit as a Fulbright Specialist. (Photo courtesy Patrick Dobson)

Thirty-five years ago, Berkeley Lab’s Earth & Environmental Sciences Area (EESA) scientist Patrick Dobson began his career as a graduate student by conducting field mapping, collecting fluid samples, and learning the ropes from local scientists at the Los Azufres geothermal field in Michoacán, Mexico. During his summer doing field work in Mexico, he met Berkeley Lab’s Marcelo Lippmann, who was attending a symposium on the Cerro Prieto geothermal field, the subject of a collaborative research project between the Lab (funded by the U.S. Department of Energy) and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), Mexico’s state-owned utility.

Now—after decades of leading geothermal exploration projects all over the world, including Indonesia, Central America, and South America—Dobson’s work has come full circle.

Earlier this year, he spent two weeks in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico as a Fulbright Specialist in geothermal research. Hosted by the Center for Scientific Investigation and Higher Education in Ensenada (CICESE), one of the main hubs for geothermal work in the country, Dobson met with Mexican researchers to share knowledge, identify areas of mutual interest, and explore potential areas of collaboration. CICESE is the lead institution for Mexico’s CeMIEGeo, a research initiative focused on geothermal energy led by Professor José Romo, who hosted Dobson’s visit.

“Since California’s renewables portfolio standard is getting higher, it’s important that we continue to advance our geothermal exploration methods in order to increase the state’s resources for cost-competitive renewable energy,” he said. “And since Mexico is one of the top producers of geothermal energy in the world, one of the goals was to get a better understanding of its geothermal resources and see where we could work together to advance our understanding of geothermal systems.”

Once we know more about the characteristics and dynamics of geothermal systems, we will be able to come up with less costly exploration and exploitation methodologies, Dobson says—an important goal, since that can lower the costs of developing these clean, renewable energy resources. (Currently, geothermal exploration involves drilling wells, each of them costing millions of dollars). The collaboration with CICESE also complements Dobson’s work at Berkeley Lab, where he and his colleagues are developing new approaches to geothermal exploration.

Dobson met with CICESE graduate students and faculty (including Professor Loic Peiffer, a former Berkeley Lab postdoctoral fellow), hosted a roundtable discussion on how to develop new collaborations between Berkeley Lab and CICESE, and gave a series of lectures. He also took a two-day trip with Peiffer and a team of Peiffer’s students to explore and collect water and gas samples at several geothermal sites.

During his two-week trip, Dobson visited five geothermal areas in Baja California: Cerro Prieto (a geothermal field operated by CFE), La Joya Beach on Punta Banda, Puertecitos, Uruapan, and San Felipe.

The group collects helium gas samples from a bubbling hot spring in the intertidal zone of San Felipe, Mexico.

The group collects helium gas samples from a bubbling hot spring in the intertidal zone of San Felipe, Mexico. (Photo credit: Patrick Dobson)

At the town of San Felipe, the group collected two helium gas samples from a bubbling hot spring in the intertidal zone. The samples will be analyzed at Berkeley Lab and CICESE. By comparing the results, CICESE can evaluate the analytical capabilities of the equipment at its new lab, Dobson says.

The field work at San Felipe also served as a training session, as Dobson and Peiffer demonstrated their sampling methods to the students, providing an opportunity to learn from each other.

Dobson hopes to continue interacting with CICESE this fall, when two CICESE graduate students plan to intern at EESA. As another outcome of his trip, a group of CICESE scientists spent a day at EESA visiting scientist Tim Kneafsey’s Rock Dynamics and Imaging Laboratory to learn more about how to establish and maintain a rock physics laboratory.

The ultimate objective of Dobson’s cross-border collaboration was to reinitiate a sustained geothermal research effort between Berkeley Lab and colleagues in Mexico, similar to the successful joint research effort at Cerro Prieto that had been coordinated and led by Lippmann (who now shares an office with Dobson) some 40 years ago.

Since the future growth of energy needs worldwide will continue unabated, international R&D projects as the ones developed by CICESE and Berkeley Lab are key to the development of clean, renewable energy resources. As a result, they can help mitigate—or even avoid—the possible effects of global warming by reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases (particularly CO2), Dobson believes.

“I am looking forward to future collaborations with CICESE,” Dobson said. “What we learn together will be mutually beneficial.”

The Fulbright Specialist Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, was established in 2001 to connect American scholars and professionals with their counterparts at host institutions overseas for short-term collaborative projects. The United States-Mexico Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange also helped facilitate Dobson’s project.