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New LCA of Four Different Soybean-Based Fuels Finds Potential for Significant Reduction in Fossil Energy Use and GHG Relative to Petroleum Fuels

Well-to-wheels GHG emissions and emission changes relative to conventional fuels, using five different approaches for co-product allocation: 1, displacement; 2, energy-value-based allocation; 3, market-value-based allocation; 4, hybrid I; 5, hybrid II. Click to enlarge. Credit: ACS

A new energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission life-cycle analysis (LCA) by Michael Wang and colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory assesses the impacts of four soybean-derived fuels: biodiesel fuel produced via transesterification; two renewable diesel fuels produced from different hydrogenation processes; and renewable gasoline produced from catalytic cracking. A paper on their work was published online 23 December in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The researchers found that, although the production and combustion of soybean-based fuels might increase total energy use, they could have significant benefits in reducing fossil energy use (>52%), petroleum use (>88%), and GHG emissions (>57%) relative to petroleum fuels.

Wang and his colleagues used an expanded and updated version of Argonne’s GREET model (Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation), and employed five approaches to allocate the co-products: a displacement approach; two allocation approaches, one based on the energy value and the other based on the market value; and two hybrid approaches that integrated the displacement and allocation methods.

The team evaluated six fuel pathways: conventional gasoline and low-sulfur diesel as the baseline fuels, along with the four renewable soybean based fuels:

  • Soybean biodiesel.

  • Soybean-based renewable diesel produced by the SuperCetane process developed by the CANMET Energy Technology Centre of Natural Resources Canada. SuperCetane is a high-cetane, low-sulfur, diesel fuel blending stock. (Earlier post.)

  • Soybean-based renewable diesel produced by the UOP green-diesel process. Green diesel is an isoparaffin-rich diesel substitute. (Earlier post.)

  • Soybean-based renewable gasoline produced by a UOP fluidized catalytic cracking process.

The results in the study were based on 1 million Btu of fuel produced and used.

Given the fact that fuel consumption by diesel engines could be 15-20% less than consumption by gasoline engines per distance traveled, to compare WTW results on a per-mile basis, researchers could reduce energy use and GHG emissions for the four diesel fuel options.

—Huo at al. (2008)

The LCA found that all soybean-derived fuels offer significant reductions (52-107%) in fossil energy use. The largest reduction (107%) was delivered by the green gasoline when evaluated with the displacement approach; large quantities of co-products produced were assumed to displace fossil energy, resulting in a large credit in fossil energy. Biodiesel, SuperCetane and Green Diesel can achieve WTW fossil energy reductions of 84%, 90%, and 55%, respectively under the displacement approach. With the allocation and hybrid approaches, the reduction ratios are around 63-71% and 52-61%, respectively.

When the displacement approach was used, all four soybean-based fuels achieved a modest to significant reduction in WTW GHG emissions (64-174%) versus petroleum- based fuels. SuperCetane and Green Gasoline achieved a much larger reduction in GHG emissions (-130% and -174%) because they have a significant amount of co-products and because the production and combustion of the replaced fuels (natural gas, diesel fuel, and residual oil) could release large amounts of GHGs.

With an allocation approach, soybean-based fuels achieve a more modest reduction in GHG emissions (57-74%). The results from using the hybrid approaches are similar to the results obtained from using the allocation approach.

The new Argonne results highlight the difference the choice of allocations approach can make. Earlier studies reported a 72-80% reduction in WTW GHG emissions for biodiesel and an 84-85% reduction for green diesel when a mass allocation approach was used.

These reductions were higher than those in our study, 66-68% for BD and 74% for RD-II, when the two allocation approaches were used. The major reason is that using energy-value-based and market-value-based approaches can allocate more of the energy and emission burden to the primary product than does the mass-based allocation approach, because soy oil and biodiesel have a higher energy value and market value per pound than soy meal and glycerin, respectively.

...When the choice is between the displacement method and the allocation method, the displacement method tends to be chosen if the uncertainties and difficulties associated with it are solved, because it can reflect the energy use and emissions actually saved as a result of the co-products replacing other equivalent products. Nevertheless, the allocation approaches have been more widely used, because they are less data-intensive and less challenging than the displacement approach.

The energy-value-based allocation method is a favorable choice for a system in which the value of all the primary product and co-products can be determined on the basis of their energy content, such as the production processes of renewable fuels. If a “nonenergy” coproduct is involved and there are difficulties associated with using the displacement approach, the market-value-based allocation method could be an acceptable choice, although the fluctuation of prices could affect the results.

In addition, the allocation method is a better choice than the displacement method if the amount of the co-products is relatively large in comparison to the amount of the primary product, because the displacement method could generate distorted results for the primary product, as can be seen in the case of RG, the WTW fossil and petroleum use of which are negative.

...Hybrid approaches are the most preferable for a complicated comparison system like our study.

—Huo at al. (2008)


  • Hong Huo, Michael Wang, Cary Bloyd, and Vicky Putsche (2008) Life-Cycle Assessment of Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Soybean-Derived Biodiesel and Renewable Fuels. Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP doi: 10.1021/es8011436



With these GHG reduction numbers - it seems a very strong argument is made for biodiesel to replace petro diesel. It would be interesting to see numbers for algal diesel also - though there is no reason to believe they won't show similar reductions of GHGs.


Don't believe a single instant these madscientists and journalists. They are paid by billionairs that eat the energy of normal peoples. Now they try to convince us to burn our foods to make fuel while at the same time they say loudly and in pain thet hydrogen fuel is impossible. They live by spreading fear and by eating the energy of normal working peoples. They are madscientists, that's all. they work for criminals like your president.


Before reading the full technical report given in the reference, comments by a.b and other green nay sayers are totally worthless and over the top.


Soybean for biodiesel is a distraction, you can barely get 100 Gallons / acre of biodiesel with Soybean, and only using the best arable land. Sure processing soybean oil to make biodiesel is simple and efficient but it requires too much land, it is even more a dead end than corn ethanol


Unless algae culture can be perfected the use of plant or animal based lipids is a dead end. Diesel, jet fuel and kerosene-like liquids will have to come from cellulosic materials and garbage. Not only that the process will have to be small scale enough to operate in farms, forests and garbage tips. Without it plane travel will have to be replaced by rail and ship while trucks and buses convert to compressed natural gas. Diesel and jet fuel are on the way out unless a new approach is found.

Peace Hugger

Just forget about biofuels based on edible oil. No matter how convincing is the ghg benefits.


Oh yeah. Let's dismiss all the good news 'cause we're programmed to emit negativity.

Biofuels are here and they are doing good. Live with it.



What does that means, to be positive about something that does more harm than good is not positivity it is unconcious optimism, the worse of the worse. Biofuel from edible and non perenial crop should be banned, period!


Tree, yes. But, honestly, what is causing more suffering in the world today - petroleum oil and massive human addiction to it - or a nascent biofuel industry that utilizes sustainable feedstocks in its first iteration and sustainable non-edible feedstocks in second gen? Not to mention the holy grail of CO2 emissions.

My point is there is a mindset here clearly programmed toward the dyspeptic, gloom-laden mythology of the Book of Revelation. If you want to delve into fiction, take your negativity to the library and read Bakunin. If you want to be a part of the solution - take a story like this and use it to make what's good - better.

My point is there is a mindset here clearly programmed toward the dyspeptic, gloom-laden mythology of the Book of Revelation.
That's what Enron's (and Fannie Mae's, and Bear Stearns'....) advocates said, before the implosion.  The Panglossian optimists were dead wrong, the number-crunchers were right.
If you want to be a part of the solution - take a story like this and use it to make what's good - better.
That's what we're doing.  We've proven, based on solid facts, that soybeans cannot replace petroleum no matter how good its life-cycle emissions are.  That idea cannot scale and has to be scrapped.  The solution is either fuel from algae, replacement of liquid fuels with non-chemical energy (electricity), limited amounts of liquid fuels from waste (including waste cooking oil), or some combination of the above.


One must first indulge in virtual belief in such systems - Fannie, Freddie, Bear, etc. all exist in a relative vacuum animated solely by technical innovation - misapplied as education.

One takes this study to be an indicator that cellulosic biofuels combined with BEV/HEVs is the most immediate solution to petroleum consumption. No one realistically expects sustainable biofuels to come predominantly from seed feedstocks.

One takes this study to be an indicator that cellulosic biofuels combined with BEV/HEVs is the most immediate solution to petroleum consumption.
Where are the competitive cellulosic biofuels?  They don't exist now, and even the hyper-optimistic EIA is predicting shortfalls.
No one realistically expects sustainable biofuels to come predominantly from seed feedstocks.
But that's pretty much the only place that liquid biofuels come from (though sweet sorghum may create an exception to this).  If we want sustainability, we have to forget about soybeans as fuel supply and probably about liquids as fuel products.

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