“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 that 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.

“This is a natural response of many organisms; as their nutritional intake is reduced, they tend to convert more of their nutrients to stored energy, such as lipids or fat, to protect against future starvation,” Thomasson said. “In fact, a process-control system is necessary in both production stages to ensure that inputs and durations are optimal.”
To help solve this problem Thomasson headed a team comprised of himself, Dr. Ruixiu Sui, a U.S. Department of Agriculture engineer in Mississippi, plus Dr. Yufeng Ge, an assistant research engineer, and Yao Yao, a graduate research assistant, both at Texas A&M University at College Station.