Early-stage life cycle assessment in SUSBIND
The SUSBIND project aims to develop a new bio-based adhesive system for particleboard and medium density fibreboard (MDF) that achieves two main environmental goals:
- a 5% lower carbon footprint;
- lower human health impacts compared to the benchmark.
In a previous blog, CE Delft explained how progress towards these environmental goals is monitored and how life cycle assessment (LCA) is used to determine the carbon footprint of the new adhesive system. In this article, we would like to highlight why LCA is used at a very early stage of product development, and how this links to uncertainties and collaboration within the SUSBIND consortium.
Why apply life cycle assessment (LCA) early on in the development process?
By conducting an LCA early in a technological development process, environmental results can be used to make more informed, and ultimately better, decisions.
We know that a lot of choices need to be made when developing a completely new product. For example, for bio-based chemicals it may be possible to use different agricultural crops, there might be different chemical conversion processes to convert feedstocks into desired products, and different amounts of energy and auxiliary materials may be required. These choices all affect the final carbon footprint of the product as determined in an LCA (as well as other environmental performance indicators).
However, as development progresses from an initial idea towards lab-scale testing and pilot trials, it becomes increasingly difficult to switch to a different production route (or bio-based feedstock, or conversion process, or…). The choice to focus on one option therefore ‘closes the door’ on others. Applying LCA ensures that we understand the environmental consequences of these decisions, enabling the partners to stay as close to SUSBIND’s environmental goals as technically feasible.
By using LCA early on, we can show the environmental implications of different options so that they can explicitly be considered in the decision-making process. Environmental impacts can then be taken into account alongside other criteria, such as technical performance, feedstock availability, or costs.
Illustration of a technological development process. Over time, process data becomes increasingly certain as the process is developed and optimised. However, the room to make changes to the process decreases.
How are uncertainties in the analyses dealt with?
While we know that all carbon footprint studies typically have some degree of uncertainty, these uncertainties larger when conducting LCA early in a technological development process. For example, the chemical conversion route can still be changed, the types and amounts of reactants required still need to be fine-tuned, the energy balance is not yet optimised when working in a laboratory, etc.
In the environmental analyses for SUSBIND, CE Delft works with the best-available data at that time. If there are uncertainties or if assumptions need to be made, we clearly note these in the reports. In addition, the most important uncertainties/assumptions are studied in sensitivity analyses. For example, if we do not know how much energy a process requires, we can make an educated assumption. Subsequently, we can use sensitivity analyses to evaluate whether this uncertainty strongly affects a study’s conclusions. This approach can provide further guidance to the industrial partners by showing them which process parameters are critical and where it may be beneficial to gather improved data.
In our view, it is essential that we cooperate closely with the industrial partners in SUSBIND, since this ensures that we have a good understanding of the process, the data and their uncertainties.
What does the collaboration with the industrial partners in SUSBIND look like?
The industrial consortium partners work on various aspects of the technological development of new bio-based resins. Within CE Delft, we depend on their expertise and knowledge when conducting the carbon footprint analyses.
To start a new LCA, we typically prepare a detailed data questionnaire which is shared with one or several industrial partners (see the example below). This provides a good starting point for modelling the process and analysing its environmental impacts.
When we generate the first results of a new analysis, we often see that new questions arise. In addition, we may identify key parameters that drive the environmental performance of a studied product. Therefore, the results are extensively discussed among project partners to see whether the input data and modelling are correct and identify remaining issues (if any).
In the course of the overall SUSBIND process, we are continually refining our data sheets and values together with the industrial partners as the chemical production routes are optimised further and become more certain. This enables all of us to stay as close to SUSBIND’s environmental goals as technically feasible.
Martijn Broeren, senior consultant/researcher CE Delft