The effects of algae concentration, ferric chloride dose, and pH on the flocculation efficiency of the freshwater algae Chlorella zofingiensis can be understood by considering the nature of the electrostatic charges on the algae and precipitate surfaces. Two critical conditions are identified which, when met, result in flocculation efficiencies in excess of 90% for freshwater algae. First, a minimum concentration of ferric chloride is required to overcome the electrostatic stabilization of the algae and promote bridging of algae cells by hydroxide precipitates. At low algae concentrations, the minimum amount of ferric chloride required increases linearly with algae concentration, characteristic of flocculation primarily through electrostatic bridging by hydroxide precipitates. At higher algae concentrations, the minimum required concentration of ferric chloride for flocculation is independent of algae concentration, suggesting a change in the primary flocculation mechanism from bridging to sweep flocculation. Second, the algae must have a negative surface charge. Experiments and surface complexation modeling show that the surface charge of C. zofingiensis is negative above a pH of 4.0 ± 0.3 which agrees well with the minimum pH required for effective flocculation. These critical flocculation criteria can be extended to other freshwater algae to design effective flocculation systems. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2012; 109:493–501. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.