Integrated biorefineries can revolutionise the production of bulk chemicals (polymers and other platform/building block chemicals), and food stuff (proteins, oils, and carbohydrates). Evaluating sustainability of products derived from integrated biorefineries requires the assessment of multiple potential feedstock and coproduct streams. This is complicated by the use of genetically engineered organisms within the fermentation process, mixing industrial and ecological systems, and making the adoption of standard life cycle assessment (LCA) approaches towards these aspects of synthetic biology ill-fitting and inappropriate.

As an emerging technology, novel fermentation processes are often assessed through LCA and techno-economic analysis (TEA) where large-scale production data is missing. This means that overall economic and environmental viability is sensitive to what technology readiness level (TRL) is assumed, with laboratory data often used to indicate performance at pilot or commercial scales of production. These sensitivities are particularly important for biotechnology where fermentation productivity can vary significantly at different production scales. Better accounting for level of technology maturity is of growing interest within the LCA community, particularly those focussed on anticipatory or early-stage assessment.
In this study we evaluated the ability of LCA and TEA to assess processes at different TRLs. This was done through a case study of a novel integrated biorefinery system, using synthetic biology, simultaneously producing a microbial lipid, protein and platform chemicals. As an example of emerging acellular agricultural technology, this represents an area of growing importance for sustainable food production. A multi-stage investigation evaluated environmental and economic feasibility at a 100 metric tonne per year and 10,000 metric tonnes per year scale. This modelled total capital investment, minimum estimated selling price (MESP) (derived from discounted cash flow analysis), and environmental impact across a range of impact categories. Parameter and model uncertainties were assessed through Global Sensitivity Analysis (GSA), Monte Carlo, and Scenario Analysis.

The results from LCA and TEA showed correlation between most major sensitivities to environmental and economic impact, but high uncertainties at both 100 and 10,000 tonnes per year production scales made decision-making for process improvement and advancement up the technology readiness levels difficult. Drawing from these findings the limitations of these methods were addressed in answering the questions required for a technology to move from laboratory scale to prototype demonstration and from demonstration to pilot scale and beyond. Learning from the research into other emerging technology systems such as those using nanomaterials, the work considered the value of using mixed method approaches such as the combination of risk analysis with life cycle assessment to answer key technology questions. Also evaluated is how under such high uncertainty, analysis can still successfully support decision-making. Based on these findings strategies for future synthetic biology based biorefinery assessment are suggested.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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