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Evaluating the sustainability of the 2017 US biofuel industry with an integrated techno-economic analysis and life cycle assessment

by John L Field
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Journal of Cleaner Production
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The United States produced more than 66.2 billion Liters of biofuel, primarily in the form of corn ethanol (61 billion Liters) and soybean biodiesel (6 billion Liters), for the transportation industry in 2017. No work currently exists that evaluates both the economic and environmental outcomes of this industry with adequate geospatial resolution and national scope. In this study, a model framework is constructed to perform Techno-Economic Analysis and Life Cycle Assessment using high-resolution input datasets to provide a granular estimation of corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel sustainability performance in most counties in the United States in 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available). Results show a total life cycle, greenhouse gas emission volume of 99.5 million Mg CO2-eq produced in 2017 by these two biofuels (94.8 million Mg from corn ethanol, and 4.7 million Mg from soybean biodiesel), excluding indirect land use change emissions. This volume corresponds to a combined carbon intensity of 65.3 gCO2-eq/MJ, which is a greenhouse gas improvement compared to petroleum-based gasoline (the carbon intensity of conventional gasoline is 93.0 gCO2-eq/MJ). However, these biofuels are produced at an additional economic cost ($1.8 billion over the displaced gas/diesel). Additionally, these biofuels generate unfavorable impacts in other environmental categories when compared to petroleum-based fuels, particularly in areas of water, land, and nitrogen intensity. This work enables stakeholders to assess the specific value of biofuels as a means of emission reduction and determine if the attained improvements are worth the associated opportunity costs.