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Assessing the economic and environmental impacts of sustainably produced poplar-based biofuels

Posted by Stephen Locker | September 17, 2014

December 11, 2013

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Sustainability assessment is a major objective of the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB) research program. Producing fuels from poplar wood grown on bioenergy farms will be a large industrial system that must be economically viable and environmentally sound to be sustainable. The AHB program has several research projects to examine economics and environmental impacts. Two of these will be presented in detail for this webinar: techno/economic analysis of bioconversion processes and life cycle assessment of producing hydrocarbons from poplar wood.

A techno/economic analysis assesses the technical feasibility and economic performance of proposed technologies.  In this analysis, we examine the production of biofuels using the ZeaChem conversion technology with emphasis on options for producing hydrogen that is required in the process.  An ASPEN simulation is used to model the bioconversion process and outputs from the model are used for the economic assessment.  We will present operating and capital cost results, as well as an evaluation of economies of scale. Profitability is presented both in terms of the cash cost to produce the fuel and the selling price required to generate a reasonable return on investment.

Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) examine all the resource demands and outputs to the environment associated with the production and use of a product. In this project, we examine the life cycle impacts of producing hydrocarbon fuels from poplars grown on bioenergy farms.  Starting from establishment of the bioenergy farm to combustion of the fuel product we inventory the resources and energy acquired from the environment and all emissions that go back into the environment.  The life cycle inventories are then translated into environmental impacts using standard LCA protocols. In this LCA we examine life cycle global warming potential, fossil fuel usage, and water usage. The life cycle impacts of hydrogen production options are examined in detail to complement the techno/economic analysis research in this area.