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Capabilities in Biomass Process and Sustainability Analyses

A photo of a woman and four men, all wearing hard hats and looking into a large square bin of dried corn stover. One man is using a white scoop to pick up some of the material and another man holds some in his hand.

Members of Congress visit NREL's cellulosic ethanol pilot plant.

A team of NREL researchers uses biomass process and sustainability analyses to bridge the gap between research and commercial operations, which is critical for the scale-up of biomass conversion technology.

Among NREL's biomass analysis capabilities are:

Life Cycle Assessments

Conducting full life cycle assessments is important for determining the environmental and economic feasibility of lignocellulosic biofuels. NREL's 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. They can also be used to examine the impacts of individual segments of the biomass conversion life cycle, such as different feedstocks, new process technologies, or alternative end-use designs.

Federal and state energy policies, such as the Energy Independence and Security Act Renewable Fuel Standard and California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, use life cycle assessments to determine which fuels meet the policy goals for greenhouse gas reductions. Rigorous and accurate life cycle assessments are important for ensuring that NREL's biomass conversion processes will produce fuels that comply with federal and state energy policies.

Variables included in NREL's life cycle assessments include:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Global warming potential
  • Net energy value
  • Water use
  • Fossil fuel requirements
  • Other potentially harmful effluents.

Technoeconomic Analysis

Technoeconomic analyses are performed to determine the potential economic viability of a research process. Evaluating the costs of a process can assess its economic feasibility. 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 technoeconomic analysis 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.

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

  • Aspen Plus—models continuous processes to obtain material and energy balances
  • Aspen Icarus Process Evaluator—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 analytical results
  • SuperTarget—performs pinch analysis for process energy use optimization
  • Stella—used for system dynamics modeling of policy and market scenarios.

Sensitivity Analysis

NREL researchers use sensitivity analysis to determine how variation of individual model parameters affects the model outcome. The results can be used to focus work toward specific sections of a process and calculate potential deviations.

Strategic Analysis

At NREL, researchers use strategic analysis to examine the interactions of policy, technology, and markets with the goal of expanding the market penetration of biofuels. NREL analysts use dynamic modeling software to compare multiple biomass uses and pathways, to examine various policy scenarios, and to identify and overcome market barriers.

Learn about projects in biomass process and sustainability analyses.