After graduating from Western Washington University with a B.S. in Geology and a keen understanding of the limited availability of fossil fuel resources, Erik decided to work in an area where he could make a difference in the growing field of biofuels. He earned an M.S. in Bioresource Science and Engineering from the University of Washington (UW) in 2013, and he is now is a PhD student at the Biofuels and Bioproducts Lab at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Services. His work focuses on life cycle analysis (LCA) of biofuels, specifically those produced from poplar and willow trees.
How did your interest in geology transfer to a dedication for sustainable fuels?
I am passionate about environmental issues. Fresh into undergrad life I was concerned about how humans were treating the earth and was convinced that it was a black and white issue; oil bad, planting trees good. During this time I made multiple climbing and backpacking trips to California, the Southwest U.S., Chile, and Argentina. I started noticing commonalities traveling to these locations. Everywhere people were using resources, many of them non-renewable, and I was using plenty of petroleum to travel to these places. These observations, combined with the geology course work, opened my eyes to how dependent we are on materials that we drill and mine from the earth. We can’t simply turn off the flow of oil or stop mining. We first need to develop renewable, sustainable replacements before we can phase out non-renewable material.
Explain your fascination with LCA
I work on assessing global impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel use, and regional impacts like water use, acidification, and eutrophication. Understanding these impacts, and working to reduce those, means that I am involved in many stages of bioproduct development. I work with engineers, biochemists, economists, and policy folks. It keeps it really interesting to work with a diverse group of people.
How do you gather data and determine its relevancy?
The data comes from a lot of different places. We work with industry partners (GreenWood Resources and ZeaChem) to create models representative of their processes. GreenWood Resources provides reports on usage of fuel, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, water use, crop yield, etc. ZeaChem works with us to develop process simulations using chemical engineering software. The information they provide is used to develop LCA data that reflect operations. When primary data isn’t available we pull information from LCA databases, literature, patents, chemical engineering encyclopedias, and government documents. We gather as much information as we can about processes within the life cycle of a product and use this to develop simulations that potentially reflect what resources would be used and what emissions could be produced if the product (e.g. bio-jet fuel) went to commercial scale production.
What is it about the LCA work that intrigues you?
I get to see how products are made which feeds my curious nature. It is really interesting to see all the chemicals/process that can go into making a single product. You can also see what production steps are the most energy intensive or emit the most CO2. This information can then be used to help improve product development, potentially reducing energy use or CO2 emissions.
How do your colleagues in academia and in the private sector benefit from your expertise?
As the LCA work develops for a particular product we can identify which stages have significant environmental impacts, such as generating a lot of CO2 or consuming large amounts of fresh water. We then search for improvements or alternatives to these stages that reduce their environmental impact. This is done in tandem with engineers, industry specialists, and others to develop practical solutions. Recently we have been investigating the tradeoffs of using natural gas or hog fuel (essentially waste wood scraps) to provide energy to biorefineries requiring large amounts of heat and steam. The hog fuel would serve as a renewable fuel source and can potentially be cheaper as well. A potential win-win. I hope my work will contribute to a sustainable biofuels and bioproducts industry that can reduce dependence on non-renewable resources without having negative environmental impacts.