Microalgal photosynthesis requires appropriate culture medium temperatures to achieve high photosynthetic performance and to maintain production of a high-quality biomass product. Enclosed systems, such as our conical, helical tubular photobioreactor (HTP), can accomplish high photosynthetic efficiency and the small amount of culture medium used by these systems means that the culture medium temperature may be effectively controlled. On the other hand, because a high ratio of surface area to culture medium volume leads to rapid heating under the illumination condition and substantial heat loss at night, maintaining a suitable culture medium temperature is necessary to achieve efficient, commercially practical biomass production. In order to predict changes in the culture medium temperature caused by changes in solar irradiance and ambient temperature, it is necessary to understand the heat balance within the photobioreactor. We therefore investigated the heat balance in three major parts (photostage, degasser, and helical heat exchanger) of our conical HTP, analyzed the time-dependent changes in medium temperature at various room temperatures and radiant energy inputs, and predicted changes in the culture medium temperature based on the characteristics of heat transfer among the three parts. Using this model, the predicted changes in culture medium temperature were very similar to the changes observed experimentally in the laboratory and under field conditions. This means that by calculating the time-dependent changes in the culture medium temperature, based on measurements of solar energy input and ambient temperature, we should be able to estimate the energy required to maintain the culture medium temperature within a range where photosynthetic performance of microalgae is high. © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Biotechnol Bioeng 74: 466–475, 2001.