Life cycle assessment of a marine biorefinery producing protein, bioactives and polymeric packaging material

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Algal research has been dominated by the use of marine biomass (mainly microalgae) as feedstock in the production of second-generation biofuels, albeit with limited economic success. A promising alternative strategy is the valorisation of seaweed (macroalgae), with the cascaded extraction of its high-value components, as well as lower-value components further downstream, under the ‘biorefinery concept’. The goal of this study was to assess the environmental performance of one such marine biorefinery situated in the UK.

Attributional life cycle assessment (LCA) was conducted on a hypothetical marine biorefinery coproducing fucoidan, laminarin, protein and alginate/cellulose packaging material (target product), from cultivated Saccharina latissima. The functional unit was the production of 1 kg of packaging material. A total of 6 scenarios were modelled, varying in coproduct management methodology (system expansion, mass allocation or economic allocation) and applied energy mix (standard or green energy). Sensitivity analysis was also conducted, evaluating the systems response to changes in allocation methodology; product market value; biomass composition and transport mode and distance. LCA calculations were performed using OpenLCA (version 1.10.3) software, with background processes modelled using the imported Ecoinvent 3.6 database. Environmental impacts were quantified under ReCiPe methodology at the midpoint level, from the ‘Heirarchist’ (H) perspective.

Results and discussion
The overall global warming impacts ranged from 1.2 to 4.52 kg CO2 eq/kg biopolymer, with the application of economic allocation; 3.58 to 7.06 kg CO2eq/kg with mass allocation and 14.19 to 41.52 kg CO2eq/kg with system expansion — the lower limit representing the instance where green electricity is used and the upper where standard electricity is employed. While implementing the green energy mix resulted in a 67% reduction in global warming impacts, it also incurred a 2–9 fold increase in overall impacts in the categories of terrestrial acidification, human non-carcinogenic toxicity, land-use and terrestrial ecotoxicity. Economic allocation resulted in burden shifting most favourable to the packaging material pathway.

This study demonstrates that the road to environmental optimisation in marine biorefineries is fraught with trade-offs. From the perspective of LCA — and by extension, the eco-design process that LCA is used to inform — when evaluating such product systems, it serves to strike a balance between performance across a broad spectrum of environmental impact categories, along with having consideration for the nature of energy systems incorporated and LCA methodological elements.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalInternational Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Early online date17 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - 17 Oct 2023

Bibliographical note

Lorraine Amponsah received financial support offered by the Doctoral College at the University of Bath, in the form of the University Research Studentship Award (URSA).


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