New Life Cycle Study Concludes That Biomass for Ethanol Is Not the Most Advantageous Energy and Emissions Use of the Feedstock
A new life cycle study assessing the benefit of cellulosic ethanol in the context of projected feedstock constraints concludes that in terms of reducing greenhouse emissions and fossil fuel dependency, more is lost than gained when prioritizing biomass or land for bioethanol, rather than for use in technology pathways involving heat and power production and/or biogas, or natural gas and electricity for transport. The study was published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on 4 October.
The study by researchers in Denmark begins with the conclusion that toward 2030, the amount of biomass which can become available for bioethanol or other energy uses will be physically and economically constrained, regardless of whether of global or a European perspective is applied. This implies that the use of biomass or land for bioethanol production will most likely happen at the expense of alternative uses.
Specifically, the study compares the use in transportation of cellulosic ethanol produced from whole-crop maize by fermentation in several process configurations to alternative use of the feedstock in heat and power applications fueled by coal or natural gas.
Among the scenarios investigated, the researchers found that using willow in CHP production combined with using electric cars for transport yields the highest GHG mitigation and reduction in oil dependency.
They also found that the optimal biogas scenario is for biogas to substitute for natural gas in heat and power production and to use the displaced natural gas to substitute for oil in the transport sector.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the ethanol baseline scenarios provide by far the lowest net GHG mitigation compared to the alternative utilizations of land for energy purposes. For example, use of the land to produce willow used for combined heat and power in substitution for coal provides GHG mitigation more than twice and high, and even higher if combined with electric cars.
Even when using fodder byproduct as fuels, the ethanol scenarios are still compared to the alternatives. The researchers attributed the low net GHG mitigation in the ethanol scenarios to the considerable amounts of steam and electricity consumed in the process of converting biomass into ethanol, especially for pretreatment, hydrolysis, extract concentration, distillation, and drying processes.
Less energy is required for catalyzing anaerobic digestion in the biogas process, for the thermal gasification of willow, or for wood pellet manufacturing. Other factors contributing to the difference in GHG mitigation across the scenarios include the high CO2 content of coal, which results in large GHG mitigation when biomass is used to displace coal, and the high energy efficiency of electric motors compared to combustion engines.
The ethanol scenarios also provide a low net fossil fuel displacement compared to several of the alternative technology pathways. Up to 2.5 times as high oil savings can be obtained with the alternative energy crop utilization pathways, for example.
Overall, for the case presented, the reductions in GHG emissions and fossil fuel dependency, obtained by producing whole-crop maize for bioethanol production happens at the expense of other land/biomass utilizations, which would provide considerably larger reductions. Thus, for this technology case and perspective, more is lost than gained when prioritizing land/biomass for bioethanol.
This is mainly caused by the significant energy conversion losses in bioethanol production compared to use of biomass in the energy sector. The losses lie in the need for pretreatment (lignocellulosic based production), the relatively low fermentation yield of ethanol, the need to dry and further process the byproduct and residual unconverted matter in order to make use of them, and the need to separate ethanol and water, implying distillation in all known cases. Such losses are not present in alternative technologies, e.g., biomass conversion to electricity and/or heat by incineration or conversion to biogas.
As long as fermentation-based conversion of biomass to ethanol implies these losses, bioethanol will come out disadvantageous to the alternatives studied heres and this is the case for presently known bioethanol technologies including both starch and lignocellulose based production. Thus, the results question the assumed justification for lignocellulosic fermentation based bioethanol: instead of reductions in GHG emissions and fossil fuel dependency, net increases will much more likely be the outcome, when considering the alternative biomass/land utilizations deprived on behalf of bioethanol.—Hedegaard et al. (2008)
Karsten Hedegaard, Kathrine A. Thyø, and Henrik Wenzel (2008) Life Cycle Assessment of an Advanced Bioethanol Technology in the Perspective of Constrained Biomass Availability. ASAP Environ. Sci. Technol., doi: 10.1021/es800358d