Photobioreactor for Microalgae Cultivation

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Team Members
  • Lucas Becia
  • Samuel Funke
  • Matthew Jungert
  • Sage Pratt
  • Nate Weidenmeyer
  • Duration Fall 2017 - Spring 2018
    Mentor Dr. Dev Shrestha

    The goal of this project is to build a bench scale photo bioreactor for micro algae cultivation. Micro algae is an excellent resource with wide reaching applications, from waste water purification to biodiesel production. We aim to design a system capable of producing micro algae in a cost effective, reliable, and efficient manner.

    Problem Statement[edit]


    Photo Bioreactors are devices often used to produce micro algae commercially. Some of the challenges of photo bioreactor design are supplying sufficient light to the micro algae and preventing the micro algae from sticking to the sides of the bioreactor. There are a range of designs currently in use, including open ponds, water filled flexible plastic bags, and long glass tubes. Each of these have issues, either with light penetration, cost, or reliability. A design that solves each of these issues effectively is the goal.

    Design Task[edit]

    Process Diagram.
    Basic Process Diagram

    Our task is to design a bench scale photo bioreactor for research purposes. It should be designed to maximize efficiency and minimize cost, and thus should be composed of relatively inexpensive materials. The basic design should be such that it could be conceivably be scaled up and built of more durable materials such as stainless steel.

    Design Specifications[edit]

    Specification Unit Metric
    1 Minimized energy input kW-hr Minimum
    2 Capable of microalgal cultivation - -
    3 Observable/ display capable - -
    4 Uniform Nutrient Distribution ppm -
    5 Minimal dead volume Gallons Minimum
    6 Maximum efficiency of light utilization kW-hr/Lumen Maximum
    7 Controllable light intensity - -
    8 Artificial Light source - -
    9 Uniform light distribution - -
    10 Light source must comply with relevant standards/codes - -
    11 Carbon Dioxide introduction system - -
    12 Controllable Carbon dioxide flow m^3/s -
    13 CO2 flow promotes medium circulation m^3/s -
    14 Working Volume Gallons 10-15
    15 Control Sensors (PH,CO,Nitrate etc) - -
    16 Visual Appeal - -
    17 Scalability - -

    Project Learning[edit]

    MicroAlgae Requirements[edit]

    For our project, we needed to be very adaptable with the parameters microalgae need to survive. This is because the PBR needs to grow many different types of algae without major modifications to the physical design. To generalize our PBR’s capabilities, we decided to use a common microalga as a control for all the needed parameters. The Algae we chose to find these parameters is the Chlorella varieties. These species are very common green microalgae found worldwide in all types of water. Most grow best with high ambient light up to 2000 umol/m2s with wavelength of blue and red. They also thrive well in temperatures of 74-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and at a pH between 6.8-7.2. CO2 concentrations should be kept no less than 22 ppm, and greater values are acceptable.

    TKsolver Equations.
    Gas Hold-up and Superficial Velocity

    Flow Considerations[edit]

    Over the development of this project we found that it is hard to find fluid flow models around the sort of system we are working with, involving a bubbling gas flow inducing a liquid flow. We found empirical equations in a book titled "Air-Lift Bioreactors" by M. Y. Chisti, examples of which are shown to the right. We have attempted to create a math model in TKsolver using these equations to optimize flow velocity and gas holdup. However, we have found for the most part due to the number of unknown variables we will need to actually construct the reactor before we can glean any meaningful data from it. Part of the purpose of this reactor is as an experimental prototype from which this sort of data can be taken.



    Design Selection[edit]

    The problem as it was given to us allowed a lot of room for creativity. There are a variety of possible designs for an air lift reactor, including external loop airlift, flat internal loop, and concentric internal loop. In selecting a basic design, we needed to consider a variety of factors, such as cost, flow, and ease of construction and maintenance. Below is a basic breakdown of the pros and cons of each basic design, and the rationale behind the one we chose.

    External Loop

    • Pros: Easy to maintain.
    • Cons: Flow is less than optimal, the design is slightly more difficult to construct.

    Flat Internal Loop

    • Pros: Easy to construct, maintain, and adjust.
    • Cons: Sub optimal flow (potential dead spots)

    Concentric Internal Loop

    • Pros: Easy to construct, excellent flow characteristics
    • Cons: Less flexible design.

    We ultimately selected the concentric internal loop design as it both provided the features we deemed most important and fit well with the wishes of our client.

    base Design.
    Final Design
    base Design.
    PBR base design

    Our Design[edit]

    Our planned design is a concentric internal loop airlift photo bioreactor, composed of an outer cylinder made of 10" diameter clear acrylic tube and a 6" diameter inner cylinder. The suspension of algae and water flows up the inner cylinder, driven by the flow of CO2 bubbles from a gas diffuser (sparger) in the base, connected to a tank of CO2. The base of the bioreactor is made of a block of plastic machined to a contour reducing dead spots and improving flow, as shown below. This block is held in place by an aluminum plate bolted to a flange attached to the outer tube of the reactor, allowing the bioreactor to be partially disassembled. Lighting is provided by tunable RGB LED strips enclosed in 6 thin vertical tubes arranged in a radial pattern in the outer tube. The lighting system is controlled by an arduino microcontroller to allow for customization of the color and intensity of the light. A CAD model of the system is shown to the right.

    Team "Autophyte Activators"
    Component Description Method of Manufacture
    Base words words
    Flange words words
    Down Comer/exterior Tube words words
    Riser/interior Tube words words
    Riser Support words words
    Light Tubes words words
    Light Fixtures words words

    Lid words words
    Pump words words
    Sensing Equipment Sensing and control is discussed in a later section. words

    Small scale prototype

    Concept Testing[edit]

    We have created a small prototype of the basic concentric tube airlift design to perform some experimentation with. While it is not precise enough to collect meaningful quantitative data from, it does serve as a physical proof of concept to demonstrate the efficacy of the airlift system.


    The contoured plastic base is carved out of a single block of plastic on the CNC lathe. The body of the reactor is composed of a single 6'long 10" diameter piece of clear acrylic tube on the exterior and a 6" diameter tube on the inside which is held in place by an adjustable brace. The lighting system is fabricated by attaching flexible LED strips with an adhesive backing to long 4 sided wooden support rods. The strips are then soldered at the base to complete the circuit. The resulting assemblies are placed in the 1.25" diameter tubes, which are held to the lid using a set of holders machined out of clear acrylic stock.


    We will do more testing once the reactor is fully assembled

    The Team[edit]

    Team "Autophyte Activators"
    Member Biography Discipline
    Lucas Becia
    2017 Autophyte Lucas Becia.jpg
    A fifth year senior studying Biological Engineering from Boise, Idaho. I have played soccer my entire life including one year of college soccer at South Dakota School of Mines. I would like to work in alternative energy when I graduate. Biological Engineering
    Samuel Funk
    2017 Autophyte Samuel Funke.jpg
    My name is Samuel Funk, I am currently a fourth-year student in Biological Engineering at the University of Idaho. I am the son of two teachers and grew up in Lewiston Idaho. In the future I hope to work in the Biomedical industry, where I would like to work in the implementation and development of diagnostic medical imaging devices, or regenerative medicine. Biological Engineering
    Matthew Jungert
    2017 Autophyte Matthew Jungert.jpg
    Currently completing my 5th and final year at the University of Idaho in Biological Engineering. I grew up on a family farm/ranch in Cottonwood Idaho. I currently work in the Lab Animal Research Facility on the University of Idaho campus as a Lab Animal Technician. I plan on going into the fields of precision irrigation or bioenergy. Biological Engineering
    Sage Pratt
    I am a mechanical engineering student from Moscow, Idaho. I chose this educational path due to my general interest in technology and science. I am also enrolled in the Air Force ROTC program, and plan to commission as a 2nd Lieutenant upon graduation and work in space operations. In my free time I attend a bible study at my church, read extensively, and work on metal and woodworking projects in my garage. Mechanical Engineering
    Nate Wiedenmeyer
    2017 Autophyte NateW.jpeg
    I’m a Senior in the College of Mechanical Engineering from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. Once I

    graduate college I would like to work for myself as an inventor/ engineer for hire. I am interested in unconventional designs and alternative approaches to established systems with an emphasis on efficiency.

    Mechanical Engineering

    Document Archive[edit]