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Cambridge team develops optimization tool including LCA for developing bio-renewables-based processes

A team at the University of Cambridge (UK) has developed a decision support tool for developing optimal processes for bio-renewable-based energy solutions and chemicals manufacturing. The tool, described in a paper in the journal ChemSusChem, combines economic and environmental performance criteria, evaluated by rigorous models.

The researchers demonstrated their optimization-simulation framework using a case study of conversion of terpenes derived from bio-waste feedstocks into reactive intermediates. The most significant advance represented by their work is the ability to perform multi-objective global optimization, resulting in identification of a region of Pareto-optimal solutions, the researchers said.

While the conversion of CO2 would naturally feed into the existing petrochemical processes and the supply chain, for example via methanol, processing of bio-based feedstocks has many more options: gasification to syngas and consecutive Fisher Tropsch synthesis, via pyrolysis of biomass, via fermentable sugars, via depolymerization of lignin, via conversion of food waste, and a few more. The number of options and their different degrees of technological advancement present a problem for developing optimal routes and the conversion technologies, which would support the evolution of the bio-based carbon-neutral chemical industry of the future.

The complications to this problem are: the absence of an established supply chain and a high degree of uncertainty, which stems from the early stage of development of many underpinning technologies, high variability of feedstocks prices and a lack of policy framework. The challenge can be formulated as finding an optimal path to evolution of a new bio-based chemical industry. Adequate decision support methods are then required for the development of an efficient bio-economy.

… It has been suggested that accuracy of LCA [life cycle analysis] evaluation can be improved by integrating detailed process design and optimisation with LCA. This was seen as a way of facilitating the development of a more sustainable industry: by explicitly linking optimisation of environmental and economic performances of a process. It is one of the missing tools in the decision support methods that could help to navigate through the evolution of the bio-based industry. Needless to say, it also contributes to one of the key objectives of sustainable development: integration of all aspects of sustainability into a new type of decision making.

—Helmdach et al.


  • Helmdach, D., Yaseneva, P., Heer, P. K., Schweidtmann, A.M. and Lapkin, A. (2017), A multi-objective optimization including results of life cycle assessment in developing bio-renewables-based processes. ChemSusChem doi: 10.1002/cssc.201700927


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