Algae grown for biofuel could be a sweet deal, but without constant monitoring, its growth process can be inefficient and economically untenable, according to a Texas AgriLife Research expert.

Alex Thomasson, AgriLife Research engineer, has developed an optical-electronic sensor that will automatically measure algae growth stages and allow micro-management of its production of oils for biofuels.

One of the main advantages of using algae for biofuel is its rapid growth potential, Thomasson explained. The other advantage is that algae can be induced to produce large quantities of lipids – fatty molecules that can be used to produce a wide range of hydrocarbon fuels.

Both the amount and type of lipids that algae produces depend upon how well the growth processes of the micro-algae are regulated. However, the very speed at which some algae grow — some strains may double their mass every six to 12 hours — makes management tricky, he said.

"Very rapid measurements will be required when scaling up to commercial production of algae as a biofuel feedstock," Thomasson said.

Most algal-oil production scenarios consist of two stages, he said. The first stage involves promoting optimal growth so the number of algal cells increases rapidly. The second stage requires limiting nutrients at exactly the right time to maximize lipid production by the cells.