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Title: Handling of co-products in life cycle analysis in an evolving co-product market: A case study with corn stover removal

item MUELLER, STEFFEN - University Of Illinois
item UNNASCH, STEFAN - Life Cycle Associates
item TYNER, WALLACE - Purdue University
item PONT, JENNIFER - Life Cycle Associates
item Johnson, Jane

Submitted to: Advances in Applied Agricultural Science
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 4/19/2015
Publication Date: 5/30/2015
Publication URL:
Citation: Mueller, S., Unnasch, S., Tyner, W., Pont, J., Johnson, J.M. 2015. Handling of co-products in life cycle analysis in an evolving co-product market: A case study with corn stover removal. Advances in Applied Agricultural Science. 3(5):8-21.

Interpretive Summary: Life cycle analysis is a tool for gauging how a product or service may impact the environment. Companies and regulators use life cycle tools to assist with decision-making and defining policy. System boundary assumptions can change the predictions. We used life cycle tools that are widely used by regulatory agencies to compare four stover and corn grain based ethanol fuel pathways. Stover is the part of a corn plant that remains on the field after grain in harvested. We evaluated potential impacts if a small fraction of the stover produced was harvested and used as cattle feed or to make ethanol. We assumed only a small amount of stover could be removed because most needs to stay in the field to protect the soil. A life cycle assessment of grain based ethanol suggests that if a portion of stover is used to make cattle replacement feed, environmental impacts could be reduced. The assessment also suggests that using some stover to make ethanol could also reduce the environmental impact of corn-based ethanol. The case study demonstrates the usefulness of using a more inclusive approach to predict environmental outcomes. Impact: This information provides an example of how improving life cycle boundaries can result in more accurate predictions of environmental benefits and costs. Life cycle analysis provides guidance to the bioenergy industry and policy-makers about the benefits and risks associated with plant-based energy, leading to more informed decisions.

Technical Abstract: Corn stover (cobs and residue) is an important part of the life cycle of corn, either as fuel or as animal feed, but most life cycle analysis (LCA) models treat them separately from starch ethanol. This paper compares four stover and corn grain based ethanol pathways to show how the greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts can differ depending on system boundaries. Corn stover can be used as a cellulosic feedstock for ethanol. It can also be used as a replacement for corn and hay or corn silage in animal feed. Life cycle GHG emissions for corn-based biofuels pathways were estimated in order to explore the life cycle boundary impact of corn replacement feed (CRF) on the carbon intensity of the studied pathways. CRF is a rapidly emerging agricultural practice where corn stover is removed from the fields in addition to the grain and substituted for corn grain and hay in cattle feed. Removing stover for CRF produces additional emissions from collection, transport, nutrient replacement, and digestibility pre-treatment but its use at feedlots results in GHG credits from the avoided corn and hay farming including reduced indirect land use change (LUC) emissions. Depending on the life cycle modeling boundaries, the treatment of these emissions credits and debits result in significantly different GHG estimates. The four pathways were modeled using data from two life cycle modeling frameworks: the GREET_1 2013/CCLUB and CA_GREET/GTAP BIO. GREET_1 is updated by Argonne National Laboratory and CA_GREET is used for the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) pathways. Co-examining stover as feed (30% stover removal rate) with starch ethanol predicted avoided LUC and feed displacement was comparable to the LUC calculated for corn grain ethanol. This case study based on corn stover removal demonstrated the differences of having a single pathway relative to a more holistic integrated approach resulting in a more accurate prediction of environmental performance. As cellulosic ethanol from stover and CRF from stover become more common, the current LCA procedures for corn ethanol will have to be modified, and we illustrate how this can be done.