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Biomass Technology Analysis

Conducting full life-cycle assessments for biomass products, including electricity, biodiesel, and ethanol, is important for determining environmental benefits. NREL analysts use a life-cycle inventory modeling package and supporting databases to conduct life-cycle assessments. These tools can be applied on a global, regional, local, or project basis.

Integrated system analyses, technoeconomic analyses, life-cycle assessments (LCAs), and other analysis tools are essential to our research and development efforts. They provide an understanding of the economic, technical, and even global impacts of renewable technologies. These analyses also provide direction, focus, and support to the development and commercialization of various biomass conversion technologies. The economic feasibility and environmental benefits of biomass technologies revealed by these analyses are useful for the government, regulators, and the private sector.

Technoeconomic Analysis

Technoeconomic analyses (TEAs) are performed to determine the potential economic viability of a research process. Evaluating the costs of a given process compared to the current technology can assess the economic feasibility of a project. These analyses can be useful in determining which emerging technologies have the highest potential for near-, mid-, and long-term success. The results of a TEA are also useful in directing research toward areas in which improvements will result in the greatest cost reductions. As the economics of a process are evaluated throughout the life of the project, advancement toward the final goal of commercialization can be measured. TEAs performed in previous years have determined the technical and economic feasibility of various biomass-based systems, including:

  • Fermentation
  • Hydrolysis
  • Direct combustion
  • Pyrolysis
  • Gasification combined cycle power systems

NREL's analysis capabilities include proficiency with the following software packages:

Software Function
ASPEN Plus© Models continuous processes to obtain material and energy balances
GateCycle™ Performs detailed steady-state and off-design analyses of thermal power systems
Questimate© Performs detailed process plant cost estimates
MATLAB® and MathCAD® Perform numeric calculations and mathematical solutions
Crystal Ball® Operates within Microsoft Excel® and incorporates uncertainties in forecasting analysis results

Life-Cycle Assessment

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is an analytic method for identifying, evaluating, and minimizing the environmental impacts of emissions and resource depletion associated with a specific process. When such an assessment is performed in conjunction with a technoeconomic feasibility study, the total economic and environmental benefits and drawbacks of a process can be quantified. Material and energy balances are used to quantify the emissions, resource depletion, and energy consumption of all processes, including raw material extraction, processing, and final disposal of products and by-products, required to make the process of interest operate. The results of this inventory are then used to evaluate the environmental impacts of the process so efforts can focus on mitigation. LCA studies have been conducted on the following systems:

Power-generation technologies:

  • Biomass-fired integrated gasification combined-cycle system using a biomass energy crop
  • Pulverized coal boiler representing an average U.S. coal-fired power plant
  • Cofiring biomass residue with coal
  • Natural gas combined-cycle power plant
  • Direct-fired biomass power plant using biomass residue
  • Anaerobic digestion of animal waste

Biofuels Production Technologies:

  • Ethanol from corn stover
  • Comparison of biodiesel and petroleum diesel used in an urban bus

Hydrogen production technologies:

  • Natural gas-hydrogen production
  • Wind/electrolysis

For these analyses, the software package used to track the material and energy flows between the process blocks in each system was Tools for Environmental Analysis and Management (TEAM®).

Learn more about our Biomass capabilities and current projects in this area.

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Key staff analyst
Margaret Mann

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