Brachionus Rubens rotifers imaged on the FlowCam. Click to enlarge.

Cyanotech Corporation produces the BioAstin and Spirulina Pacifica lines of high-quality microalgae products for human health and nutrition. They are produced in a sustainable, reliable, and environmentally sensitive operation based out of Kailua Kona, HI.

Growth and quality monitoring of their ponds requires information on the quantity of algae and the health of the culture. Optical density methods are a quick way to measure growth but lack the ability to provide images to monitor algal health. Microscopical methods show how well the algae are doing but are slow and labor-intensive, rendering the method inefficient and non-scalable. The researchers at Cyanotech found that the Fluid Imaging Technologies (FIT) FlowCam provides both classes of information simultaneously, at a much higher accuracy than either of the other two methods, and at a rate fast enough to allow both to be obtained and analyzed promptly and economically.

Charley O’Kelly, Director of Applied Research at Cyanotech Corporation, had known about the FlowCam for decades. He was a Senior Research Scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences while FIT founders Chris and Mike Sieracki were developing the technology for imaging flow cytometry and producing the first FlowCams.

Dr. O’Kelly knew that the FlowCam was perceived primarily as a tool for academic research and was not well known in the algae cultivation industry. He saw that FlowCam had potential as a tool for this industry, and that it would make critical improvements to both R&D and production at Cyanotech. To make the case, he arranged to have laboratory and production samples submitted to the FIT lab, through their particle analysis services (PAS). All in all, he submitted nine samples for analysis of algae populations.

Dr. O’Kelly and his Applied Research team analyzed the information from the samples, and recognized that the cell growth and health data were far more accurate than had previously been achieved. Due to the FlowCam’s speed of operation, many more samples could be processed per day than were previously possible without hiring additional staff.

This instrument is now an essential part of Cyanotech’s standard pond operating protocols and is in constant use by both the Applied Research and the Cultivation departments. Cyanotech uses the FlowCam to count microalgae, image the organisms present in the sample, and automatically classify the organisms. The methods are leveraged as part of the routine monitoring of production cultures as well as research to identify and implement productivity improvements. It is a key source of information on:

  • How fast the algae are growing
  • Whether the shape and size of the algal cells are within normal parameters
  • Whether the quality of the culture is within normal parameters

Cyanotech staff have developed daily dashboards and other software tools to organize FlowCam data, assess its significance, and present the results across the company. Data, especially on algal cell shape and size, and on culture quality, that previously were too labor-intensive to collect are now routinely acquired and shared.