The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment pp. 1–23, 2017
Bio-based products, Cumulative energy demand, Global warming potential, Life cycle assessment, Water depletion, Modular modelling
Purpose This study advocates a modular approach combining unit processes as building blocks to formulate biomass process chains. This approach facilitates a transparent environmental life cycle impact assessment for bio-based products. It also enhances the ability to develop and assess more complex biorefinery systems, identifies critical parameters and offers useful material to support environmental impact assessment in early design stages. Methods Twenty-three different products were assessed with regard to the environmental burden associated with their production paths. Life cycle inventories (LCIs) for 32 unit processes were compiled (using information from pilot plants, simulation and literature data) and organized in biomass process chains. Then, 58 study systems were formed based on various combinations of the unit processes, each study system referring to the production of a selected product. Three indicators were used for quantification of the impacts: non-renewable fossil cumulative energy demand (CED), global warming potential (GWP) and water depletion as defined in the ReCiPe method. Results and discussion Factors influencing the variation of results even for similar products are discussed (e.g. production path and allocation method lead to a range of GWP values for ethylene production from 0.43 to 3.37 kg CO2 eq/kg ethylene). For the majority of bio-products, CED has lower values than fossil-based equivalents (average difference 39–70 MJ eq/kg product depending on the allocation method), while mixed trends are obtained for the GWP and water depletion indicators. Assessments also highlight attributes that have a significant effect in the environmental profile of a production path such as the synthesis path, the process chemistry (water intensity) and process-related factors (energy intensity, degree of energy integration/heat recovery). Conclusions The analysis of impacts per unit process is able to demonstrate the particular production stages featuring high environmental intensities along a path further hinting to suggestions for amendments and improvements from an overall performance perspective. The study makes a useful source for biorefinery design studies especially in adopting a modular approach to represent and to analyse biomass process chains; it also provides a reference point for comparison (benchmarking) between different process technologies for biomass utilization. Finally, the analysis is compatible with the standards of the LCA methodology, and it is based on the use of the most common LCA databases, which facilitates the comparison of the results with other relevant studies.