Moving beyond LCA/TEA to design environmentally sustainable and economically viable multi-product bioenergy systems


Biomass products (e.g., transportation fuel, chemicals, animal feed) are becoming increasingly economically competitive due to advances in cultivation, harvesting and conversion technologies, as well as a push to integrate production with economically valuable industrial processes (e.g., wastewater treatment). As fundamental advances continue to bring algae closer to widespread commercial viability, there is growing pressure to develop plant design and operational paradigms that succeed financially and environmentally. Traditionally, researchers in this area have relied on a combination of life cycle analysis (LCA) and techno-economic analysis (TEA) to evaluate competing algae production pathways.

Generic algae production pathway with industrial ecology connection to municipal wastewater facility.

However, LCA/TEA often ignore the wide range of uncertainties that can make biofuels a risky investment.  At the cultivation stage, biomass producers face uncertainties in environmental systems (i.e., water availability, solar irradiation, temperatures) and markets (e.g., for nutrients, carbon dioxide) that significantly impact plant output and costs. Equally daunting are uncertainties in the prices for biomass products, as well as regulatory support (e.g., fuel standards). These uncertainties create an additional hurdle for would-be algae producers, who already face difficulties in convincing financiers to invest in a nascent technology. Understanding how to plan for and dynamically manage these risks will be key to promoting the success of individual plants and the growth of the biofuels industry.

The Kern Group collaborates with other scientists, biological, process, and system engineers on translational biofuels research. Our primary work in this area involves integration of traditional LCA/TEA modeling with modern decision analytics, including many-objective optimization. As part of two separate U.S. DOE awards funded by the Bioenergy Technologies Office, we model system design, capital investment and operational strategies, using high quality experimental data where available, and otherwise relying on ‘bottom up’ sensitivity analysis, to understand the impacts of uncertainty in relevant parameters on physical/financial system performance metrics. Our research is laying the groundwork for wider commercialization of biofuel technologies, and supports the U.S. Department of Energy’s mission by providing broader financial and economic analyses of alternative biofuel pathways to help guide future funding priorities.

Relevant Papers:

Kern, J.D., Gorelick, D.E., Characklis, G.W., Macklin, C.M. (2020). “Multi-Objective Optimal Siting of Algal Biofuel Production with Municipal Wastewater Treatment in Watersheds with Nutrient Trading Markets.” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management.

Kern, J.D., Hise, A.M, Characklis, G.W., Gerlach, R., Viamajala, S., Gardner, R. (2017) “Using Life Cycle Assessment and Techno-Economic Analysis in a Real Options Framework to Inform the Design of Algal Biofuel Production Facilities.” Bioresource Technology.Vol. 225, pp. 418-428.

Hise, A., Characklis, G., Kern, J., Gerlach, R., Viamajala, S., Gardner, R., Vadlamani, A. (2016). “Evaluating the Relative Impacts of Operational and Financial Factors on the Competitiveness of an Algal Biofuel Production Facility.” Bioresource Technology. Nov; 220. pp. 271-281