Algal Reactor Design Based on Comprehensive Modeling of Light and Mixing

  • Alexandra D. HollandEmail author
  • Joseph M. Dragavon


The prospect of autotrophic (or light-driven) algal biomass production as a sustainable substitute for fossil feedstocks has yet to fulfill its potential. As a likely cause, the inability to robustly account for algal biomass production rates has prevented the derivation of satisfactory mass balances for the simple parameterization of bioreactors. The methodology presented here aims at resolving this shortcoming. Treating photons as a substrate continuously fed to algae provides the grounds to define an autotrophic yield ФDW, in grams of dry weight per mole of photons absorbed, as an operating parameter. Under low irradiances, the rate of algal biomass synthesis is the product of the yield ФDW and the flux of photons absorbed by the culture, modeled using a scatter-corrected polychromatic Beer-Lambert law. This work addresses the broad misconception that Photosynthesis-Irradiance curves, or the equivalent use of specific growth rate expressions independent of the biomass concentration, can be extended to adequately model biomass production under light-limitation. Since low photon fluxes per cell maximize ФDW, the photosynthetic units mechanistic model was adapted to determine a corresponding maximum residence time under high light. Such high speeds in the photic zone, which call for fundamental changes in bioreactor design, enable the use of ФDW to describe biomass productivity under otherwise inhibitory irradiances. Nitrogen limitation-induced lipid accumulation corresponds to a photon flux excess with respect to the rate of nitrogen uptake, such that continuous lipid production can be achieved using the ФDW and nitrogen quotient parameters. Additionally, energy to photon-counts conversion factors are derived.


Algal chemostat parameterization Algal growth autotrophic yield Continuous algal lipid production Photic zone target speed Photosynthetic units mechanistic model Scatter-corrected polychromatic Beer-Lambert law 

Abbreviations and Nomeclature

A. Abbreviations




Absorbance unit


Computer-automated radioactive particle tracking

Chl a

Chlorophyll a


Dry weight




Left hand side


Non-photochemical quenching


National Renewable Energy Laboratory


Photosynthetically active radiation (400-700 nm)




Photosynthesis photon flux density




Photosystem I


Photosystem II


Photosynthetic unit


Reduced carrier


Quinone A



B. Variables and Corresponding Units

a [molPSII]

Number of open of PSII centers (or oxidized)

a* [molPSII]

Number of closed of PSII centers (or reduced)

a0 [molPSII]

Total number of PSII centers

AbsRAW(λ) [AU]

Raw algal absorption at wavelength λ

AbsSC(λ) [AU]

Scatter-corrected algal absorption at wavelength λ


Scatter contribution to algal absorption at wavelength λ

Ac [m2]

Area of the culture perpendicular to the light source

C [gDW m−3]

Algal culture biomass concentration in the bioreactor

c [m s−1]

Celerity of light

C0 [gDW m−3]

Algal culture biomass concentration at inoculation time t 0

CE, [gDW m−3]

Culture biomass concentration during spectrum acquisition

cEJ [E J−1]

Einstein-to-Joules conversion factor

CPI [gDW m−3]

Algal biomass concentration in the PI chamber

d [m]

Depth of the photic zone, where light is > 99 % I 0

EP(λ) [W m−2 nm−1]

Photon energy reported for each wavelength increment dλ

EF(x) µE gDW−1 h−1

Specific energy flux at depth x

EFT µE gDW−1 h−1

Threshold specific energy flux at onset of light limitation

ELIGHT(λ) [counts nm−1]

Light source emission spectrum at λ

FCHEM [m3 h−1]

Chemostat volumetric flow rate (bioreactor)

F [molPSII gDW−1]

Weight fraction of PSII

FIN [m3 h−1]

Inlet stream volumetric flow rate (bioreactor)

FOUT [m3 h−1]

Outlet stream volumetric flow rate (bioreactor)

FPAR [-]

Fraction of energy in the PAR region

h [SI Units]

Planck’s constant

I(x) [µE m−2 h−1]

Local PPFD at a given depth x

I0 [µE m−2 h−1] or [µE m−2 s−1]

Incident photosynthesis photon flux density (PPFD)

IABS [µE m−2 h−1]

Absorbed PPFD by the algal culture

IH [µE m−2 s−1]

Highest possible direct normal solar irradiance

IOUT [µE m−2 h−1]

PPFD transmitted through the algal culture

IT [µE m−2 s−1]

Threshold irradiance at which NPQ becomes significant

k1 [s−1]

Rate of PSII excitation

k2 [s−1]

Rate of PSII relaxation

L [m]

Depth of the culture

LE [m]

Pathlength of the light through the spectrophotometer

LPI [m]

Depth of the PI chamber

mP [µE gDW−1 h−1]

Maintenance parameter

\(\dot n(\lambda )\) [E s−1 m−2 nm−1]

Photon flux reported for each wavelength increment at λ

Na [mol−1]

Avogadro’s constant


Algae culture absorbance at 680 nm

P [gDW m−2 h−1]

Algal biomass area productivity

P(λ) [cps]

Spectrometer reading (in counts per second)


Bioreactor productivity

Pi [gDW h−1]

Zone i contribution to the algal biomass productivity

\(P_i^V\) [gDW m−3 h−1]

Local volumetric biomass production rate in zone i

PLIGHT(λ) [nm−1]

Normalized light-source photon fraction at λ


Lipid productivity

PMAX [gDW m−2 h−1]

Maximum algal biomass area productivity (light-limited)

PSUN(λ) [nm−1]

Normalized solar spectrum photon fraction at λ

qL [-]

Fraction of open PSII centers

qN [-]

Fraction of closed PSII centers

QN [gN gDW−1]

Nitrogen weight fraction (or nitrogen quotient)

S [gS m−3]

Substrate S concentration in the bioreactor

S0 [gS m−3]

Inlet stream substrate S concentration

t [h]

Time in the light phase, truncated for duration in the dark

t [s]

Time scale for the PSU model

t0 [h]

Reference inoculation time

u [-]

PSU model integrating factor (L or S subscript indicates linear or sinusoidal trajectory submodel respectively)

VC [m3]

Culture volume in bioreactor

vT [m s−1]

Target velocity in the photic zone for near maximum ФPSII (additional L or S subscript indicates linear or sinusoidal trajectory submodel respectively)

x [m]

Distance from the light incidence surface

xT [m]

Threshold depth (onset of light limitation in poorly-mixed reactor)

YC/S [gDW gS−1]

Biomass yield on the substrate S

YC/N [gDW gN−1]

Biomass yield on nitrogen substrate

β [-]

Proportionality constant between the spectrometer count reading and the incident photon flux

λ [nm]


µ [h−1]

Specific growth rate

µMAX [h−1]

Maximum specific growth rate

σ [m2 gDW−1]

Monochromatic absorption cross section

σDW [m2 gDW−1]

Scatter-corrected algae-specific light source-dependent absorption cross section

τ [s]

Time for the incident light to excite half the threshold PSII fraction

ψ(λ) [m2 gDW m−2]

Hyperbolic model parameter

ω(λ) [m2 gDW−1]

Hyperbolic model parameter

ФAPP [molCO2 E−1]

Apparent efficiency parameter in mole CO2 fixed per mole incident photons

ФCO2 [molCO2 E−1]

Quantum yield

ΦDW [gDW µE−1]

Autotrophic yield

ФC2 [molOZ E−1]

Quantum yield


Photon fraction used to excite the QA pool, or PSII operating efficiency



We would like to acknowledge Dr. Agnieszka Kawska at for help in creating the Figs. 2, 3, 13 and 14.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.2 Les LétumièresMoussonvilliersFrance

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