This goal of this research is to create a framework for a predictive and dynamic Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tool. This research is anticipated to result in transformational advances in LCA, including the ability to forecast the stochastic nature of developing systems and incorporating spatial and temporal considerations currently lacking in LCA. A developing switchgrass-to-energy system in the southeastern United States will be used as a case study to show how a sophisticated mathematical approach can ultimately lead to a more robust and effective LCA tool. The project will transfer the latest knowledge from decision theory and stochastic modeling to forecast changing land use patterns and the effect on environmental impacts of bioenergy. Bayesian modeling techniques will be used to predict the decision making behavior of individuals within a developing system. Once a system forecast is determined, life cycle inventory data coupled with a Geographic Information System will be used to determine the change in environmental profile over time. Since the uncertainties of developing systems are inherently large, Monte Carlo Analysis will be used to determine the range of possible values and identify system sensitivity. This research has the potential for the creation of a systematic and rational basis for decision-making regarding bioenergy in the southeastern United States. The Southeastern Bioenergy Research Collaborative, an interdisciplinary group of over twenty researchers, economists, and policy makers will use the results of this study in their ongoing investigations of bioenergy opportunities for fuel production. A major aspect of this project will be the creation of a public educational video regarding economic, environmental, and social aspects of bioenergy development.
This project focuses on two major areas of research: (1) advancing tools associated with creating dynamic life cycle assessment (LCA) results and (2) using switchgrass-to-ethanol as a case study, explore the LCA implications of meeting the United States' cellulosic bioenergy goals, under a range of scenarios. The research resulted in two major findings: (1) The environmental impacts of switchgrass bioenergy are dictated by the price of switchgrass. This result is contrary to the popular opinion that the environmental impact of a product is intrinsic to the product itself. In reality, the environmental impact of a product can be variable, depending on differential adoption by individuals with different environmental baseline characteristics. Through agronomic modeling work, we can show that there are different environmental impacts associated with different land use changes. The price of switchgrass determines the types of land on which it will be adopted. As the price of switchgrass increases, we see greater environmental benefits associated with direct land use change as a greater proportion of intensive agricultural land is converted to switchgrass (Note: the study does not include quantification of environmental impacts resulting from indirect land use change). This finding has implications for a variety of emerging products, where the results of an LCA may be a function of who adopts it and what it displaces. (2) A comprehensive LCA framework for analyzing emerging technologies will continue to require an interdisciplinary approach. Understanding the potential impacts of new and transformative products is incredibly complex and requires inputs ranging from a variety of technical, behavioral, and economic disciplines. Nine peer-reviewed papers have been published as a direct result of this research, with three additional manuscripts currently in review, and another two manuscripts in preparation. In addition to dissemination of research through traditional academic outlets, there have been multiple successful efforts to engage in work that results in Broader Impact. The PI created a series of segments on LCA of every day products that was broadcast on a local National Public Radio affiliate serving most of South Carolina. The PI has also presented on the themes of bioenergy and sustainability to multiple civic groups, business associations, and programs designed to increase underrepresented groups in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. The PI is also active in disseminating results to government agencies. She has participated in numerous workgroups discussing bioenergy sustainability and policy, sponsored by both the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The PI is heavily engaged in a variety of mentoring programs to increase representation of women and minorities in engineering. She actively mentors female graduate engineering students through the Network of Engineering Women at the University of Michigan. She also participates in a variety of engagement activities with the undergraduate STEM research community.