Algae Document — Industrial Algae Measurements 6.0

Technical standards define critical terms and metrics to add wisdom for the algae industry. Agreement among science and business leaders represents possibly the most difficult challenge to the algae industry. Failing standards, those doing research or producing algae cannot communicate their needs, production, operations or outputs. The algae industry, similar to other new industries, has charlatans who make grand promises while selling snake oil.

Agreement on a common language and standard methods and metrics will improve the reliability and validity of algae research and production. IAM 6.0 represents a five-year collaborative product of 30 algae companies, universities, institutes and National Labs.

Algae production metrics may appear to be straightforward measurement, but they are possibly the most challenging of any industry because algae cells are so small.

Currently, algae productivity is often reported in grams per cubic meter per day. Without knowing how the measurements were made, the time period and measure variability, there is no way to know either the metric reliability or validity.

Growth rates are the primary determinate for value creation. Failing standards, there is no way to validate claims because too many variables are unreported and often unknown. Creating standardized methods for algae productivity will assure that everyone understands precisely how much of which algae is produced per unit of culture in a given period.

Adoption of uniform language and methods will accelerate industry growth and unify research. Business and scientific publications will be able to communicate highly credible reports that benefit their institutions and companies. Consumers will win, as they develop higher confidence in both algae scientific and business publications. You may download this free document here: IAM 6.0.

This Operator’s Guide for Algae recommends the descriptive parameters and measurement methodologies required to fully characterize the economic and environmental inputs and outputs for various types of aquatic biomass operations. The operating manual is designed to serve novice, intermediate to advanced algapreneurs, aquatic farmers, algae companies, scientists, academics, students and people curious about our algae industry.

The Operator’s Manual uses the “Green Box” approach to describe environmental, economic and carbon footprint by quantifying the inputs and outputs of algae production systems. These input/output metrics enable economic projections through techno-economic analyses and sustainability calculations through life-cycle assessments.

Green Box inputs include the carbon, water, photons and nutrients required by the algae, as well as siting, process consumables and manpower. Green Box outputs include the different classes of algae products as well as industrial waste emissions including gas, liquid, and solid discharges. Together, the measured inputs and outputs create a picture of the total economic and environmental footprint of any algae operation. The algae production system footprint serves as the core for funding, regulatory and sustainability reviews. The economic and environmental footprint will define the commercial viability for algae projects.

IAM 6.0 includes a series of appendices that provide a guide to the economic, regulatory, and environmental considerations applicable to the algae industry. The initial section examines the critical topic of measuring algae production of valuable products at the cellular level.

The technical standards address dry weight measurements and compare methods of reliably determining productivity. The analysis covers various methods including filtration, centrifugation, turbidity, cell count and organic carbon content. Notice is made that weight measures may be affected by the presence of significant quantities of contaminating microorganisms or contaminants in the culture.

The following section surveys the methods to measure the algae lipids, extractable oils and the various component oils. A variety of techniques and equipment are described to demonstrate alternatives for measuring lipids, including fluorescence and infrared spectroscopy. An insightful and useful figure provides 20 pie charts of fatty acid composition for various algae species.

Carbohydrate measures often use the rapid phenol sulfuric acid method, which can hydrolyze and react quantitatively with the carbohydrates in solution. Alternative carbohydrate quantification procedures involve sequential hydrolysis of carbohydrate polymers in algae identification and quantification of the monomers by liquid or gas chromatography as alditol acetates.

Solix demonstration plant in southwestern Colorado (Source: IAM 6.0)

Protein content in algal biomass can be quantified using two common procedures; colorimetric  and a nitrogen ratio. A fluorometric measurement procedure of algae protein is being developed and offers substantial advantages such as the need for only a minute amount of biomass. Colorimetric and fluorometric procedures are susceptible to interference from non-protein cellular components as well as extraction buffer constituents. These metrics are dependent on the protein standard used for calibrating the absorbance/fluorescence values.

The lifecycle and techno-economic analysis section examines the total environmental, energy and financial footprint of the algae production process. The LCA process involves determining the energy, carbon and water balance associated with producing the target product of fuel, food or other bioproducts. LCA’s may include air emissions, waste products, manpower inputs and raw materials.

Total LCA considers the total impact of construction, operation and decommissioning. Gaseous emissions and liquid and solid discharges from algal production operations include those incurred during facilities construction prior to operations, during the operating life of the facility, and after operations cease and the facility is decommissioned.

Raceway pond at Cellana’s facility in Hawaii (Source: IAM 6.0)

The regulating and permitting of algae farm siting and operations section examines gaseous emissions of air pollutants, water pollution or discharges to water, solid and hazardous waste handling and disposal, facility siting and permitting, and handling toxic substances. Caution is noted that some jurisdictions have regulatory requirements specifically for microorganisms and algae with respect to their production, importation, genetic modification and/or processing for both R&D and commercial activities.

The regulatory and process considerations for marketing algae-based food, feed and supplements provides the basis for producers considering food additives, colorants, dietary supplements, functional foods, nutraceuticals and animal dietary supplements. The section discusses the regulatory framework in the US governed by the EPA, FDA, USDA, FTC and the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials, (AAFCO). Considerable attention is given to the process required to gain the certification for a food additive as Generally Recognized as Safe, (GRAS) status. Dietary supplements are governed by a separate set of regulations, DSHEA, (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994). New dietary ingredients require a new dietary ingredient notification (NDIN) to the FDA.

Algae processing considerations include both growth and harvesting methods used when algae is produced for food. There are three key regulatory considerations to marketing an algae food product in the U.S. A food facility must be registered with the FDA regardless of whether it is located in the U.S. or not, must follow GMP regulations and the product must have either approval as a food additive or a determination of the GRAS status of the ingredient. Any changes to the manufacturing process require additional review.

Food safety and security regulations require constant culture monitoring and documentation for the possible presence of toxins, bacteria, heavy metals, chemical residuals or other contaminants. GMP requires operators to maintain records from each batch of food quality control tests. The FDA’s Food Labeling Guide details food labeling regulations including nutritional facts and ingredient labeling on packaged products. Labels that make health claims require additional documentation be provided to FDA for proof.

The requirements for marketing a bio-based fuel from algae are relatively simple compared with algae ingredients for food, feeds and nutraceuticals. The Clean Air Act prohibits sale of gasoline or diesel fuel that is not “substantially similar” to conventional fuel; and defines this as not causing or contributing to the degradation of a vehicle’ emission control system.

The EPA regulates underground storage tanks to protect ground water and requires that these tanks must be compatible with the materials stored in them. Products must be interchangeable with current fuels and meet a common ASTM standard. Producers of an ethanol, fatty acid methyl ester, or hydrocarbon biofuel may be able to demonstrate that it meets existing ASTM standards and avoid third party testing.

The section on quality attributes and considerations for trading algae oils covers algae oils marketed two existing markets for oils and fats such as cooking feedstock as well as newly emerging markets such as aviation fuels, biocrudes, bioplastics, green chemicals and biopolymers. Trading rules are not special for the algae industry. Rules rely on the established salient quality attributes of existing oils and fats, including combination of key attributes common to naturally occurring triglycerides (oils/fats) or important characteristics of the use of the oil/fat. The algal industry will need to provide characteristics of algae oil allowing it to be easily compared to existing oils and fats.

Oils and fats are marketed into the food industry primarily as shortenings, salad oils, margarine, frying oils, or as components in baking, mayonnaise or salad oils. These oils put a premium on properties important to their end use, such as color, appearance, or cold and heat stress properties. Minor compounds must be reported that can affect flavor or texture such as impurities or unsaponifiable material. Other properties need reporting if they affect shelf life and overall purity of the triglyceride oil. A detailed table shows the important characteristics and properties for oils and fats.


The Industrial Algae Measurements 6.0 serves the algae industry with a concise set of instructions for key decisions in algae production. This Operator’s Manual for Algae gives algapreneurs a clear roadmap through the production of algae and other aquatic bioproducts.

The IAM 6.0 is a living document that has undergone several years of refinement with the substantial efforts of the ABO Technical Standards Committee listed below. The technical standards committee plans to make modest expansion and add additional sections to future IAM releases. Please send your ideas and insights for edits or additional coverage to Dr. Lieve Laurens, Committee Chair, Algal Research Scientist, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

University Algal Research Lab (Source: IAM 6.0)

  • ABO Technical Standards Committee Authors:
  • Dr. Lieve Laurens – Committee Chair, Algal Research Scientist, National Renewable Energy Laboratory
  • Dr. Keith Cooksey – Committee Co-Chair, Environmental Biotechnology Consultants, Professor Emeritus, Montana State University, ABO Board Member
  • Jim Sears, New Product Development, Boulder Labs Inc., CTO, A2BE Carbon Capture LLC
  • Dr. Rose Ann Cattolico, Professor of Algal Biology, University of Washington.
  • Dr. Mark Edwards, Professor, Arizona State University, W. P. Carey School of Business.
  • Steve Howell, President and founder of MARC-IV, Chairman of the ASTM task force on biodiesel standards.
  • Adonis Neblett, Attorney, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
  • Dr. Robert McCormick, Principal Engineer, Fuels Performance, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • Dr. Philip Pienkos, Applied Sciences Group Manager, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • Gina Clapper, Technical Specialists, AOCS American Oil Chemists Society.
  • Pat Ahlm, Assistant Director, Government and Regulatory Affairs at Algenol Biofuels Inc.