EBI researchers to expand scope of lifecycle emissions study

By Erin Voegele | June 03, 2009
Report posted June 5, 2009, at 9:30 a.m. CST

With the recent introduction of EPA's proposed rulemaking for the renewable fuels standard (RFS2) as enacted in the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007 and California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, many in the ethanol industry have been focused on research that seeks to determine the effects of lifecycle fuel emissions on climate change. However, researchers at the Energy Biosciences Institute are working to expand the scope of that study into the areas of water quality, human health and ecological damage.

The EBI is a research and development organization that represents a unique collaboration between the University of California Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of Illinois and BP Corp. A team of 17 EBI researchers are currently working to complete the project, titled "Life-Cycle Environmental and Economic Decision-Making for Alternative Biofuels."

According to project coleader Thomas McKone, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the project began in early 2008 and is currently ongoing. A recent presentation made by McKone at a Society of Industrial Microbiology meeting has garnered a great deal of attention in the scientific community. However, McKone stressed that the presentation was designed to provide background and methodology on the project, not present results. He did not estimate when final results of the project will be available.

The 17 member interdisciplinary team working on the project includes researchers representing the fields of engineering, public health, economics and water resources. "What we are doing is taking the entire lifecycle of transportation fuels and trying to break it down and do detailed assessments and then put it all together to come up with some overall measurement of impacts," McKone said.

According to McKone, a key component of any lifecycle analysis is defining the unit of measurement. "The interesting thing about lifecycle assessment is people want it to be an objective process, but I find it's actually an informative process," he said. This is because the researcher must determine the assumptions used and as well as the unit of measurement. For a fuel lifecycle analysis, some examples of unit of measure include a volume-based comparison of fuels versus a comparison that is based on energy content or vehicle miles. "This is where the lifecycle assessment is very difficult because you have to make it clear to people what your assumptions are because you can actually change the answer by how you define the unit of comparison. We're actually doing it both ways to make sure we see the differences," McKone said.