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Evaluating the sustainability performance of U.S. biofuel in 2017 with an integrated techno-economic and life cycle assessment framework




Smith, Jack Philip, author
Quinn, Jason, advisor
Simske, Steve, committee member
Bandhauer, Todd, committee member

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The United States produced more than 66.2 million m3 of biofuel for the transportation industry in 2017. Most of that volume (60.6 million m3) was produced in the form of corn ethanol and the majority of the remaining volume (4.2 million m3) was produced in the form of soybean-based biodiesel. Numerous works have assessed the economic and environmental performance of these two biofuel types. However, no work exists which evaluates both the economic and environmental outcomes of these two fuels with adequate geospatial resolution and national scope. In this study, a model framework is constructed that performs concurrent Techno-Economic Analysis (TEA) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) using high-resolution input datasets to provide a granular estimation of sustainability performance of every county in the United States. This work presents results that include sector wide estimates and highlights the importance of capturing geographic heterogeneity. Results show a total emission volume of 55 MMT CO2-eq produced by the 2017 US biofuel industry, with 7 MMT CO2-eq of that amount resulting from Land Use Change effects. Nationwide weighted mean Global Warming Potential results are 38 gCO2-eq/MJ and 37 gCO2-eq/MJ for corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel, respectively, when Land Use Change emissions are included. Minimum Fuel Selling Price results are $0.0208/MJ ($2.52/GGE) and $0.0225/MJ ($2.72/GGE) for corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel, respectively. A Zero-Emissions Cost (ZEC) metric is applied, which combines the economic and environmental performance of a fuel into its analysis. Specifically, the cost associated with offsetting all fuel production and use emissions through Direct Air Capture (DAC) is added to the standard price of the fuel. Mean ZEC results are $0.037/MJ ($4.53/GGE) for corn ethanol and $0.039/MJ ($4.69/GGE) for soybean biodiesel which are lower than the ZEC of conventional gasoline of $0.062/MJ ($7.45/GGE). Finally, the cost of Direct Air Capture which results in ZEC parity between each biofuel and its petroleum-based counterpart is assessed to be $49/MT CO2-eq.


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life cycle assessment
techno-economic analysis
land use change
process modeling


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