Evaluation of environmental impacts of cellulosic ethanol using life cycle assessment with technological advances over time

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Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) has been used in quantifying the environmental impacts of materials, processes, products, or systems across their entire lifespan from creation to disposal. To evaluate the environmental impact of advancing technology, Life Cycle Assessment with Technological Advances over Time (LCA-TAT) incorporates technology improvements within the traditional LCA framework. In this paper, the LCA-TAT is applied to quantify the environmental impacts of ethanol production using cellulosic biomass as a feedstock through the simultaneous saccharification and co-fermentation (SSCF) process as it improves over time. The data for the SSCF process are taken from the Aspen Plus ® simulation developed by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). The Environmental Fate and Risk Assessment Tool (EFRAT) is used to calculate the fugitive emissions and SimaPro 7.1 software is used to quantify the environmental impacts of processes. The impact indicators of the processes are calculated using the Eco-indicator 95 method; impact categories analyzed include ozone layer depletion, heavy metals, carcinogens, summer smog, winter smog, pesticides, greenhouse effect, acidification, and eutrophication. Based on the LCA-TAT results, it is found that removal of the continuous ion exchange step within the pretreatment area increases the environmental impact of the process. The main contributor to the increase in the environmental impact of the process is the heavy metal indicator. In addition, a sensitivity analysis is performed to identify major inputs and outputs that affect environmental impacts of the overall process. Based on this analysis it is observed that an increase in waste production and acid use have the greatest effect on the environmental impacts of the SSCF process. Comparing economic analysis with projected technological advances performed by NREL, the improvement in environmental impact was not matched by a concomitant improvement in economic performance. In order to implement technologies which are environmentally sustainable, it is critical to perform LCA for future technological advances. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.

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Biomass and Bioenergy