Journal of Environmental Protection, 2011, 2, 648-654
doi:10.4236/jep.2011.25074 Published Online July 2011 (http://www.scirp.org/journal/jep)
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
Microalgae Tolerance to High Concentrations of
Carbon Dioxide: A Review
Fadhil M. Salih
ClearValue Inc. Sugar Land, Texas, U.S.A.
Received April 2nd, 2011; revised May 6th, 2011; accepted June 3rd, 2011.
The increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is considered to be one of the main causes of
the global warming problem. Moreover, there is an international movement to redu ce the emission of CO2 by imposing
different measures such as carbon tax. Biological CO2 fixation has been extensively investigated as part of efforts to
solve the global warming problem. Microalgae are fast growing systems that can consume high quantities of CO2 to
produce different types of biomass. The efficiency of microalgae is highly related to the concentration of CO2 in the
growth atmosphere and the higher the concentration of CO2 the better is the growth and hence productivity. The pre-
sent review aimed at shedding some light upon microalgal capab ility to sustain their viab ility and propaga te unde r high
Keywords: Carbon Dioxide, Microalgae, Tolerance, Sequestration
1. Introduction and Methods
Global warming due to increased carbon dioxide concen-
tration in the atmosphere is receiving a great deal of at-
tention. Atmospheric increases of carbon dioxide are po-
sitively correlated with the amount of fossil fuels being
burned . In an effort to retard this increase and, there-
fore, the greenhouse effect, most industrialized countries
have joined in a policy to hold carbon dioxide emissions
. However, it is not clear if technology exists to achi-
eve this goal.
Generally, photosynthetic system provides critical
oxygen renewal along with the recycling of carbon into
potentially beneficial biomass [3,4]. The efficiency of such
system depends on the type of the organism used [5,6].
Microalgae are the most promising production facilities.
They are capable of fixing several-fold more CO2 per
unit area than trees or crops. Such CO2 fixation by photo-
autotrophic algal cultures has the potential to diminish
the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, helping alleviate
the trend toward global warming. To realize workable
biological CO2 fixation systems, selection of optimal mi-
croalgae species is vital. The selection of optimal micro-
algae species depends on specific strategies employed for
Viewing microalgae farms or bioreactors as means to
reduce the effects of a greenhouse gas (CO2) changes the
view of the economics of the process. Instead of requir-
ing that microalgae-derived fuel be cost competitive with
fossil fuels, the process economics must be compared
with those of other technologies proposed to deal with
the problem of CO2 pollution. However, development of
alternative, environmentally safer energy production te-
chnologies will benefit society whether or not global
climate change actually occurs . Microalgal biomass
production has great potential to contribute to world en-
ergy supplies, and to control CO2 emissions as the de-
mand for energy increases. This technology makes pro-
ductive use of arid and semi-arid lands and highly saline
water, resources that are not suitable for agriculture and
other biomass technologies .
Although CO2 is still released when fuels derived from
algal biomass are burned, integration of microalgal farms
for flue gas capture approximately doubles the amount of
energy produced per unit of CO2 released. Materials de-
rived from microalgal biomass also can be used for other
long-term uses, serving to sequester CO2. Flue gas has
the potential to provide sufficient quantities of CO2 for
such large-scale microalgae farms .
2. CO2 Tolerant Microalgae
Electrical power plants are responsible for over one-third
of the U.S. emissions or about 2.2 × 109 tonns CO2 per
Microalgae Tolerance to High Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide: A Review649
year . Direct utilization of power plant flue gas has
been considered for CO2 sequestration systems . The
advantage of utilizing flue gas directly is the reduction of
the cost of separating CO2 gas. Since power plant flue
gas contains a higher concentration of CO2 [12,13] iden-
tifying high CO2 tolerant species is important. Although
CO2 concentrations vary depending on the flue gas
source , 15% - 20% v/v is typically assumed. Several
species have been tested under CO2 concentrations of
over 15%, as given in Table 1 .
One of the high CO2 tolerant species is Euglena graci-
lis. Growth of this species was enhanced under 5% - 45%
concentration of CO2. The best growth was observed
with 5% CO2 concentration. However, the species did
not grow under greater than 45% CO2 . Hirata et al.,
[23,24] reported that Chlorella sp. UK001 could grow
successfully under 10% CO2 conditions. It is also re-
ported that Chlorella sp. can be grown under 40% CO2
conditions . Furthermore, Maeda et al.,  found a
strain of Chlorella sp. T-1 which could grow under 100%
CO2, although the maximum growth rate occurred under
a 10% concentration, while Scenedesmus sp. could grow
under 80% CO2 conditions but the maximum cell mass
was observed in 10% - 20% CO2 concentrations .
Cyanidium caldarium  and some other species of
Cyanidium can grow in pure CO2 .
Generally, phototrophic microalgal growth requires a
supply of carbon dioxide as a carbon source. CO2 supply
contributes to control the pH of the culture . Chemi-
cal analysis has shown that algal biomass consists of
40% to 50% carbon, which suggests that about 1.5 to 2.0
kg of CO2 is required to produce 1.0 kg of biomass .
According to previous studies, the supply of carbon to
microalgal mass culture systems is one of the principal
difficulties and limitations that must be solved [11,29,30].
The principal point of all considerations relating to the
CO2 budget is that, on the one hand, CO2 must not reach
Table 1. CO2 tolerance of various species .
Cyanidium caldarium 100% 
Scenedesmus sp. 80% 
Chlorococcum littorale 60% 
Synechococcus elongatus 60% 
Euglena gracilis 45% 
Chlorella sp. 40% 
Eudorina spp. 20% 
Dunaliella tertiolecta 15% 
Nannochloris sp. 15% 
Chlamydomonas sp. 15% 
Tetraselmis sp. 14% 
the upper concentration that produces inhibition and, on
the other hand, must never fall below the minimum con-
centration that limits growth . These maximum (in-
hibition) and minimum (limitation) concentrations vary
from one species to another and are not yet adequately
known, ranging from 2.3 × 10−2 M to 2.3 × 10−4 M [31,
3. Sustainability of Photosynthetic Organisms
The previously held notion that unlike terrestrial plants,
submerged plants like algae will not show any response
to an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This view
may be biased by a neglect of the effects of the plants
themselves on the water chemistry . If this effect is
included, productivity may double due to a doubling of
the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. In practice
productivity increase will usually be less, however, under
nutrient rich conditions, doubling of atmospheric carbon
dioxide may result in a productivity increase up to 40%
in saltwater species and up to 50% in freshwater species
. These results indicate that the carbon uptake by
fresh and saltwater systems may increase more than ex-
pected, and that nuisance algal blooms may be aggra-
vated at elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentra-
Moreover, plants grown in elevated atmospheric CO2
environments typically exhibit increased rates of photo-
synthesis and biomass production . Most of the stud-
ies that have established this fact have historically util-
ized CO2 concentration increases on the order of 300 -
400 ppm, which represents an approximate doubling of
the air’s current CO2 concentration; and they have been
conducted on terrestrial plants [36,37].
Andersen et al.  grew specimens of Littorel la uniflora,
one of the isoetids (small slow-growing evergreen peren-
nials that live submerged along the shores of numerous
freshwater lakes and rely primarily on sediment-derived
CO2 for their photosynthesis) in sediment cores removed
from Lake Hampen (Denmark) in 75-liter tanks. The end
result of these experiments was that the ultra-CO2-en-
riched water led to an approximate 30% increase in plant
biomass. In a different study Anderson and Anderson 
measured the CO2-induced in situ growth response of a
mixture of several species of filamentous freshwater al-
gae (dominated by Zygnema species, but containing some
Mougeotia and Spirogyra), as well as an isoetid commu-
nity of macrophytes (dominated by Littorella uniflora,
but containing some Myriophyllum alterniflorum and a
few other species). After one full growing season (May
to November), they determined that the ten-fold increase
in aquatic CO2 enhanced the biomass production of Lit-
torella uniflora by approximately 78%. Simultaneously,
the biomass of filamentous algae was also enhanced by
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
Microalgae Tolerance to High Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide: A Review
the elevated CO2: by 220% in early July, by 90% in mid-
August, and by a whopping 3,750% in mid-November.
A red seaweed common to the Northeast Atlantic in-
tertidal zone, Lomentaria a rticulata, was grown for three
weeks in hydroponic cultures subjected to various at-
mospheric CO2 and O2 concentrations to determine the
effects of these gases on growth . In doing so, they
found that oxygen concentrations ranging from 10 to
200% of ambient had no significant effects on daily net
carbon gain or total wet biomass production rates in this
particular seaweed. In contrast, CO2 concentrations rang-
ing from 67 to 500% of ambient had highly significant
effects on these parameters. At twice the current ambient
CO2 concentration, for example, daily net carbon gain
and total wet biomass production rates were 52 and
314% greater than they were under ambient CO2 condi-
tions. Likewise, Tisserat  grew water mint (Mentha
aquatica) plants for four weeks at ambient and enriched
atmospheric CO2 conditions, finding that compared to
plants exposed to air of 350 ppm CO2, those grown in air
of 3,000 ppm CO2 produced 220% more fresh weight.
Microalgae response to varying CO2 concentrations
has been widely investigated. Chlorella vulgaris was
cultivated under various light intensities in a gas recy-
cling photobioreactor. The light intensity affected the
algal growth and the CO2 concentration in the exit gas. In
the linear growth phase, CO2 concentration in the exit
gas ranged between 4.6% to 6.0% (v/v) when 20% (v/v)
CO2 balanced with 80 % (v/v) N2 was introduced into the
In search of a simple method for removing CO2 from
high-CO2-concentration stack gases, Yue and Chen 
isolated and cultured a freshwater microalga of the genus
Chlorella for periods of six days in vessels filled with
growth media through which air of a variety of different
CO2 concentrations was continuously bubbled. Data re-
vealed that algal growth rates some 200% greater than
those observed in ambient air were common at 100,000
ppm CO2. Thereafter, however, at higher CO2 concentra-
tions, algal growth rates began to slowly decline; but
they continued to remain greater than the growth rate
observed in ambient air. Relative to that baseline, for
example, the algal growth rate at 200,000 ppm CO2 was
170% greater, that at 300,000 ppm was 125% greater,
and that at 500,000 ppm was about 40% greater. Similar
results were obtained by Watanabe et al.  for another
Chlorella alga, by Hanagata et al.  for both Chlorella
and Scenedesmus species, and by Kodama et al.  for
the marine microalga Chlorococcum littora te.
Euglena cells were cultured to determine the maxi-
mum CO2 elimination rate under a high concentration of
CO2 with stirring of the supplied gas by bubbling. It was
found that the maximum CO2 elimination rate or gas ex-
change performance under a 10% concentration of CO2
was 2.3 times higher than 0.03% of CO2 concentration.
The results suggest that the CO2 concentration in the
supplied gas rate limits the algal system performance
The effect of increased CO2 concentration on the growth
rate of three planktonic algae (Chlamydomonas reinhard-
tii, Chlorella pyrenoidosa, and Scenedesmus obliquus)
enhanced significantly . Specific growth rates reached
maximal values at 30, 100, and 60 μM CO2 in C. rein-
hardtii, C. pyrenoidosa, and S. obliquus, respectively.
Such significant enhancement of growth rate with en-
riched CO2 was also confirmed at different levels of in-
organic N and P. The maximal rates of net photosynthe-
sis, photosynthetic efficiency and light-saturating point
increased significantly in high-CO2-grown cells. The au-
thors concluded that increased CO2 concentrations with
decreased pH could affect the growth rate and photosyn-
thetic physiology of the three algae species.
In a different study  Chlorella species showed
much higher log phase growth rates, while Scenedesmus
species was better able to tolerate very high CO2 concen-
trations than Chlorella. However, both algae had about
the same growth rate when the CO2 concentration was in
the range 10% - 30%. Scenedesmus was completely in-
hibited by 100% CO2. This inhibition was reversible
since growth was resumed when CO2 concentration was
returned to 20%. Other microalgae species, Chlorella
minutissima, grown under extreme carbon dioxide con-
centrations (0.036% - 100%), strongly increase the mi-
croalgal biomass through photochemical and
non-photochemi- cal changes in the photosynthetic ap-
paratus . In conclusion, these extreme CO2 concen-
trations—about 1,000 times higher than the ambient
one—can be easily metabolized from the unicellular
green alga to biomass and can be used, on a local scale at
least, for the future development of microalgal photobio-
reactors for the mitigation of the point source-produced
carbon dioxide. Similar conclusion was derived by Prof.
Shiraiwa’s Laboratory  that some microalgae could
grow very rapidly at a CO2 concentration higher than
40%, those cells being referred to as extremely high-CO2
Yun, et al.,  cultivated Chlorella vulgaris in waste-
water discharged from a steel-making plant with the aim
of developing an economically feasible system to remove
ammonia from wastewater and CO2 from flue gas simul-
taneously (since no phosphorus compounds existed in
wastewater, external phosphate (15.3 - 46.0 g·m–3) was
added to the wastewater). After adaptation to 5% (v/v)
CO2, the growth of C. vulgaris was significantly im-
proved at a typical concentration of CO2 in flue gas of
15% (v/v). Growth of C. vulgaris in raw wastewater was
opyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
Microalgae Tolerance to High Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide: A Review651
better than that in wastewater buffered with HEPES at
15% (v/v) CO2. CO2 fixation and ammonia removal rates
were estimated as 260 g CO2 m
–3·h–1 and 0.92 g NH3
m–3·h–1, respectively, when the alga was cultivated in
wastewater supplemented with 460 g PO4
pH control at 15% (v/v) CO2.
4. Mechanisms of CO2 Tolerance
The mechanistic implications of the effect of the elevated
CO2 concentration on algal growth and productivity was
previously studied [15,47,49]. The cells of Dunaliella
tertiolecta grown under ordinary air (low-CO2 cells) had
a well developed pyrenoid with many more starch gran-
ules than those grown under air enriched with CO2
(high-CO2 cells). The chloroplast was located close to the
plasma membrane in low-CO2 cells, while that in high-
CO2 cells was located in the inner area of the cells.
Chloroplast envelope was electronically denser in low-
CO2 cells than in high-CO2 cells, while the opposite ef-
fect of CO2 was observed for the plasma membrane .
This implies that microalgae can possibly tolerate high
concentration of CO2 by adjusting their structural anat-
omy and redistribution of certain cellular organelles .
5. Factors Influencing CO2 Tolerance
The presence of oxygen plays a role in controlling the
efficiency of CO2 uptake. Becker  calculated that a
concentration of CO2, as low as 10–6 mol/l (30 ppm) is
sufficient to maintain unlimited photosynthesis of the
algae. On the other hand, experiments with different O2
concentrations in the medium have shown the photosyn-
thetic efficiency is increased by 14% if almost no O2 is
present in the medium but is reduced to about 35% when
the medium is saturated with 100% O2. However, an-
other study showed that oxygen concentrations ranging
from 10 to 200% of ambient had no significant effects on
daily net carbon gain or total wet biomass production
rates in this particular seaweed .
Generally speaking, the effects of various combina-
tions of CO2 concentration, light intensity and oxygen
concentration on photosynthesis and growth in several
algal types suggest the following.
Different algae show different responses to high oxy-
gen concentrations and high light intensities. Gener-
ally, inhibition of photosynthesis (CO2 fixation and
growth), increases with increasing oxygen concentra-
tion and with increasing light intensity (at light inten-
sities greater than saturation) [51-55]. This is very
much in favor of using these biological systems for
the production of biofuel in various climates.
The environmental conditions play a determining role
in promoting CO2 fixation and cellular propagation.
For example, a hot spring alga (HSA) purified from
an alkaline hot spring (pH 9.3 and 62˚C) in Taiwan
grows well over pH 11.5 and 50˚C. For performance
of HSA, CO2 removal efficiencies in the packed
tower increase about 5-fold in a suitable growth con-
dition compared to that without adding alkaline salt
such as potassium hydroxide. In addition, HSA also
exhibits a high growth rate under the controlled pHs
from 7 to 11 .
Basic growth nutrients must be available in order to
maintain proper physiological integration of the cul-
ture. This can reasonably be overcome using waste-
Temperature can be a determining factor in the selec-
tion of the algal species [60,61]. However, the diver-
sity in the optimum temperature required to maintain
the best growth rates makes it possible to choose the
organism with given physical needs .
In considering the results of the studies described above,
it would appear that super-elevated atmospheric CO2
concentrations are not detrimental to freshwater and ma-
rine microalgae and macrophytes. In fact, they suggest
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