Life Cycle Assessment of Biofuel Production

The many benefits of biofuels, such as energy independence, economic growth, and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, will continue to increase the demand for and production of biofuels. Process optimization is still a key area for the biofuels industry, but in order to improve efficiencies and lower costs, focus must also be on reducing their carbon footprint.

Regulation in the US and Europe has established minimum requirements for GHG-emission reduction of biofuels, and while the biofuels industry is already beating these targets, general interest in making biofuels a more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels also drives the interest in continuing to improve its environmental performance.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) illustration. Source: DANTES

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is crucial for driving the development of more sustainable biofuels. LCA is a tool we can use to assess the environmental impact of all the elements in the value chain, from harvesting feedstock to mixing ethanol with gasoline. LCA allows the identification of hotspots where we will benefit the most from optimization, and it enables us to compare the environmental trade-offs from harvesting crop residues with the environmental benefits of substituting gasoline. For optimization of biofuel production, this holistic approach is crucial.

To get the most benefit out of the use of LCA, it is important that tools are developed which are easy for farmers, biofuel manufacturers, and technology providers to use, and that allow them to see the effects of the processes which are under their direct control. Such tools enable these users to see the impact of what they do on the total biofuel carbon footprint.

The development of such tools is already underway. For corn-based ethanol production, the University of Nebraska developed the tool Biofuel Energy System Simulator (BESS). Rough estimates of the carbon footprint for cellulosic biofuels also exist, but the level of documentation is low due to the lack of commercial-scale operations and limited information about harvesting cellulosic feedstocks.

In the near future, and in parallel with the commercial take-off of cellulosic biofuels, we hope to see a greater number of LCA efforts documenting environmental performance, as well as tools that will drive development towards more sustainable fuels.

By: Karen Margrethe Oxenboll, Sustainability Manager, Novozymes

Retrieved from: Novozymes

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