Biotechnology Letters

, Volume 40, Issue 9–10, pp 1311–1327 | Cite as

Simulation of algal photobioreactors: recent developments and challenges

  • Xi Gao
  • Bo Kong
  • R. Dennis Vigil


Widespread cultivation of phototrophic microalgae for sustainable production of a variety of renewable products, for wastewater treatment, and for atmospheric carbon mitigation requires not only improved microorganisms but also significant improvements to process design and scaleup. The development of simulation tools capable of providing quantitative predictions for photobioreactor performance could contribute to improved reactor designs and it could also support process scaleup, as it has in the traditional petro-chemical industries. However, the complicated dependence of cell function on conditions in the microenvironment, such as light availability, temperature, nutrient concentration, and shear strain rate render simulation of photobioreactors much more difficult than chemical reactors. Although photobioreactor models with sufficient predictive ability suitable for reactor design and scaleup do not currently exist, progress towards this goal has occurred in recent years. The current status of algal photobioreactor simulations is reviewed here, with an emphasis on the integration of and interplay between sub-models describing hydrodynamics, radiation transport, and microalgal growth kinetics. Some limitations of widely used models and computational methods are identified, as well as current challenges and opportunities for the advancement of algal photobioreactor simulation.


Algae cultivation Computational fluid dynamics Photobioreactor Multiphase flow Radiation transport 



Volumetric light attenuation coefficient


Light absorption coefficient


Biomass concentration


Effective turbulent diffusivity


Photon flux


Incident photon flux


Light-path length


Index of refraction

\(R_{{x_{i} }}\)

Reaction rate of state i


Position vector


Light path direction vector




Mass fraction of photosynthetic unit state i


Solid phase velocity


Solid phase volume fraction

α1, α2

Coefficients for two-flux model


Light wavelength


Solid angle


Stefan–Boltzmann constant


Light scattering coefficient


Solid phase density

\(\phi_{\lambda }\)

Wavelength-dependent phase function


Light extinction coefficient



Financial support was provided for this work by National Science Foundation Grant CBET-1236676.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemical & Biological EngineeringIowa State UniversityAmesUSA
  2. 2.Division of Materials Sciences and EngineeringAmes LaboratoryAmesUSA

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