Microalga is a promising biomass feedstock to restore the global carbon balance and produce sustainable bioenergy. However, the present biomass productivity of microalgae is not high enough to be marketable mainly because of the inefficient utilization of solar energy. Here, we study optical engineering strategies to lead to a breakthrough in the biomass productivity and photosynthesis efficiency of a microalgae cultivation system. Our innovative optical system modelling reveals the theoretical potential (>100 gm(-2) day(-1)) of the biomass productivity and it is used to compare the optical aspects of various photobioreactor designs previously proposed. Based on the optical analysis, the optimized V-shaped configuration experimentally demonstrates an enhancement of biomass productivity from 20.7 m(-2) day(-1) to 52.0 gm(-2) day(-1), under the solar-simulating illumination of 7.2 kWh m(-2) day(-1), through the dilution and trapping of incident energy. The importance of quantitative optical study for microalgal photosynthesis is clearly exhibited with practical demonstration of the doubled light utilization efficiencies.