Life cycle assessment for sustainability assessment of biofuels and bioproducts

Document Type : Perspective


1 Joint Graduate School of Energy and Environment, King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi, 126 Prachauthit Rd., Bangmod, Tungkru, Bangkok 10140, Thailand.

2 Center of Excellence on Energy Technology and Environment (CEE), Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation, Bangkok, Thailand.

3 School of Postgraduate Studies, Diponegoro University, Semarang, Central Java 50241, Indonesia.

4 Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, USA.


Bio-based materials have been used traditionally for millennia. Their use was overtaken in recent times by the discovery and utilization of fossil-based resources for materials and energy. However, concerns about the non-renewability of fossil resources and greenhouse gas and other emissions associated with their use have brought forth a renewed interest in using bio-based materials in recent years. The environmental advantages of bio-based materials cannot be taken for granted without a rigorous scientific assessment. Many tools based on energy, economics, and environmental impacts have been used. Life cycle assessment is one such tool developed and successfully utilized for the environmental assessment of biofuels and bioproducts. However, many methodological challenges, among other things related to system boundaries, functional units, allocation, and carbon accounting, still need further research and consideration. In this work, the related issues are summarized, and the directions for addressing them are discussed. Despite the methodological challenges in their assessment, biofuels and bioproducts show promise in terms of their environmental advantages compared to their fossil-oriented counterparts. These advantages can be further enhanced by utilizing all parts of the feedstock biomass, especially for value-added materials and chemicals via biorefineries. 

Graphical Abstract

Life cycle assessment for sustainability assessment of biofuels and bioproducts


  • Methodological challenges faced when applying life cycle assessment are critically discussed.
  • Life cycle assessment is essential to ensure the potential benefits of biofuels and bioproducts.
  • Biorefineries can enhance the environmental performance of biofuels and bioproducts.
  • Balancing carbon emissions from a life cycle perspective needs dynamic assessment.


  1. ACE, 2020. The 6th ASEAN Energy Outlook (AEO6), ASEAN Centre for Energy (ACE). Jakarta.
  2. ACE, 2022. The 7th ASEAN Energy Outlook (AEO7), ASEAN Centre for Energy (ACE). Jakarta.
  3. Aghbashlo, M., Hosseinzadeh-Bandbafha, Shahbeik, H., Tabatabaei, M., 2022. The role of sustainability assessment tools in realizing bioenergy and bioproduct systems. Biofuel Res. J. 35, 1697-1706.
  4. Aghbashlo, M., Khounani, Z., Hosseinzadeh-Bandbafha, H., Gupta, V.K., Amiri, H., Lam, S.S., Morosuk, T., Tabatabaei, M., 2021. Exergoenvironmental analysis of bioenergy systems: a comprehensive review. Renew. Sust. Energy Rev. 149, 111399.
  5. Aghbashlo, M., Rosen, M.A., 2018a. Exergoeconoenvironmental analysis as a new concept for developing thermodynamically, economically, and environmentally sound energy conversion systems. J. Clean. Prod. 187, 190-204.
  6. Aghbashlo, M., Rosen, M.A., 2018b. Consolidating exergoeconomic and exergoenvironmental analyses using the emergy concept for better understanding energy conversion systems. J. Clean. Prod. 172, 696-708.
  7. Bardi, U., Pereira, C.A. (Eds.), 2022. Limits and Beyond: 50 years on from The Limits to Growth, what did we learn and what's next?.A Report to the Club of Rome. Exapt Press.
  8. Beloin-Saint-Pierre, D., Albers, A., Hélias, A., Tiruta-Barna, L., Fantke, P., Levasseur, A., Benetto, E., Benoist, A., Collet, P., 2020. Addressing temporal considerations in life cycle assessment. Sci. Total Environ. 743, 140700.
  9. Bezergianni, S., Chrysikou, L.P., 2020. Chapter 17-Application of life-cycle assessment in biorefineries. Waste Biorefin. Elsevier. 455-480.
  10. Brandão, M., Heijungs, R., Cowie, A.R., 2022. On quantifying sources of uncertainty in the carbon footprint of biofuels: crop/feedstock, LCA modelling approach, land-use change, and GHG metrics. Biofuel Res. J. 9(2), 1608-1616.
  11. Chaya, W., Gheewala, S.H., 2022. Sustainable livelihood outcomes, causal mechanisms and indicators self-determined by Thai farmers producing bioethanol feedstocks. Sustainable Prod. Consumption. 29, 447-466.
  12. Choudhary, S., Liang, S., Cai, H., Keoleian, G. A., Miller, S.A., Kelly, J., Xu, M., 2014. Reference and functional unit can change bioenergy pathway choices. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 19, 796-805.
  13. Cotula, L., Dyer, N., Vermeulen, S., 2008. Fuelling exclusion?.the biofuels boom and poor people's access to land. London: LIED.
  14. Cudlínová, E., Sobrinho, V.G., Lapka, M., Salvati, L., 2020. New forms of land grabbing due to the bioeconomy: the case of Brazil. Sustainability. 12(8), 3395.
  15. FAO, 2014. The water-energy-food nexus: a new approach in support of food security and sustainable agriculture. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome.
  16. Gazal, A.A., Jakrawatana, N., Silalertruksa, T., Gheewala, S.H., 2022. Water-energy-food nexus review for biofuels assessment. Int. J. Renewable Energy Dev (IJRED). 11(1), 193-205.
  17. Gheewala, S.H., 2021. Life cycle thinking in sustainability assessment of bioenergy systems. E3S Web Conf. 277, 01001.
  18. Gheewala, S.H., 2019. Biorefineries for sustainable food-fuel-fibre production: towards a circular economy. E3S Web Conf. 125, 01002.
  19. Gheewala, S.H., 2013. Environmental sustainability assessment of ethanol from cassava and sugarcane molasses in a life cycle perspective, in: Singh, A., Olsen, S.L., Pant, D. (Eds.), Life Cycle Assess. Renewable Energy Sources. Springer. 131-143.
  20. Gheewala, S.H., Berndes, G., Jewitt, G., 2011. The bioenergy and water nexus. Biofuels, Bioprod. Biorefin. 5(4), 353-360.
  21. Gheewala, S.H., Jaroenkietkajorn, U., Nilsalab, N., Silalertruksa, T., Somkerd, T., Laosiripojana, N., 2022. Sustainability assessment of palm oil-based refinery systems for food, fuel and chemicals. Biofuel Res. J. 36, 1750-1763.
  22. Gheewala, S.H., Kittner, N., Shi, X., 2018. Costs and benefits of biofuels in Asia, in: Bhattacharyya, S.C. (Ed.), Routledge handbook of energy in Asia. Taylor and Francis, pp. 363-376.
  23. Gheewala, S.H., Damen, B., Shi, X., 2013. Biofuels: economic, environmental and social benefits and costs for developing countries in Asia. Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Clim. Change. 4(6), 497-511.
  24. Hau, J.L., Bakshi, B.R., 2004. Promise and problems of emergy analysis. Ecol. Modell. 178(1-2), 215-225.
  25. Hosseinzadeh-Bandbafha, H., Aghbashlo, M., Tabatabaei, M., 2021. Life cycle assessment of bioenergy product systems: a critical review. e-Prime Adv. Electr. Eng. Electron. 1, 100015.
  26. IEA (2021), Global Energy Review 2021, IEA, Paris.
  27. IPCC, 2021. Summary for policymakers. In climate change 2021: the physical science basis. contribution of working group i to the sixth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Masson-Delmotte, V., Zhai, P., Pirani, A., Connors, S.L., Péan, C., Berger, S. et al. (Eds.). Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  28. IRENA, 2022. Scaling up biomass for the energy transition: Untapped opportunities in Southeast Asia, International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi.
  29. Jaroenkietkajorn U., Gheewala, S.H., 2021. Understanding the impacts on land use through GHG-Water-Land-Biodiversity nexus: the case of oil palm plantations in Thailand. Sci. Total Environ. 800, 149425.
  30. Kruyt, B., van Vuuren, D.P., de Vries, H.J.M., Groenenberg, H., 2009. Indicators for energy security. Energy Policy. 37(6), 2166-2181.
  31. Levasseur, A., Lesage, P., Margni, M., Deschenes, L., Samson, R., 2010. Considering time in LCA: dynamic LCA and its application to global warming impact assessments. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44(8), 3169-3174.
  32. Levasseur, A., Lesage, P., Margni, M., Samson, R., 2013. Biogenic carbon and temporary storage addressed with dynamic life cycle assessment. J. Ind. Ecol. 17(1), 117-128.
  33. Maciel, V.G., Novaes, R.M.L., Brandão, M., Cavalett, O., Pazianotto, R.A.A., Garofalo, D.T., Folegatti-Matsuura, M.I., 2022. Towards a non-ambiguous view of the amortization period for quantifying direct land-use change in LCA. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 27(12), 1299-1315.
  34. Mahmood, A., Varabuntoonvit, V., Mungkalasiri, J., Silalertruksa, T., Gheewala, S.H., 2022. A tier-wise method for evaluating uncertainty in life cycle assessment. Sustainability. 14(20), 13400.
  35. Martin-Gamboa, M., Marques, P., Freire, F., Arroja, L., Dias, A.C., 2020. Life cycle assessment of biomass pellets: a review of methodological choices and results. Renew. Sust. Energy Rev. 133, 110278.
  36. Meadows, D., Randers, J., Meadows, D., Behrens III, W.W., 1972. The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind, New York: Universe Books.
  37. Meadows, D., Randers, J., 2012. Limits to growth: the 30-year update. Routledge.
  38. OECD, 2014. Climate Change, Water and Agriculture: Towards Resilient Systems, OECD Studies on Water, OECD Publishing.
  39. O’Keeffe, S., Wochele-Marx, S., Thrän, D., 2016. RELCA: a REgional life cycle inventory for assessing bioenergy systems within a region. Energy Sustainability Soc. 6(1), 1-19.
  40. Panichelli, L., Gnansounou, E., 2017. Modeling land-use change effects of biofuels policies: coupling economic models and LCA. Elsevier. 233-258.
  41. Pigné, Y., Gutiérrez, T.N., Gibon, T., Schaubroeck, T., Popovici, E., Shimako, A.H., Benetto, E., Tiruta-Barna, L., 2020. A tool to operationalize dynamic LCA, including time differentiation on the complete background database. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 25, 267-279.
  42. Prapaspongsa, T., Gheewala, S.H., 2017. Consequential and attributional environmental assessment of biofuels: Implications of modelling choices on climate change mitigation strategies. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 22, 1644-1657.
  43. Sala, S., 2020. Chapter 3-Triple bottom line, sustainability and sustainability assessment, an overview. Biofuels for a More Sustainable Future. Elsevier. 44-72.
  44. Sciubba, E., 2001. Beyond thermoeconomics? The concept of extended exergy accounting and its application to the analysis and design of thermal systems. Exergy, Int. J. 1, 68-84.
  45. Shams Esfandabadi, Z., Ranjbari, M., Scagnelli, S.D., 2022. The imbalance of food and biofuel markets amid Ukraine-Russia crisis: a systems thinking perspective. Biofuel Res. J. 9(2), 1640-1647.
  46. Silalertruksa, T., Gheewala, S.H., 2012. Food, fuel and climate change: is palm-based biodiesel a sustainable option for Thailand?. J. Ind. Ecol. 16(4), 541-551.
  47. Silalertruksa, T., Gheewala, S.H., Hünecke, K. Fritsche, U.R., 2012. Biofuels and employment effects: implications for socio-economic development in Thailand. Biomass Bioenergy. 46, 409-418.
  48. Stamford, L., 2020. Chapter5-Life cycle sustainability assessment in the energy sector. Biofuels for a More Sustainable Future. Elsevier. 115-163.
  49. Soltanian, S., Aghbashlo, M., Almasi, F., Hosseinzadeh-Bandbafha, H., Nizami, A.S., Ok, Y.S., Lam, S.S., Tabatabaei, M., 2020. A critical review of the effects of pretreatment methods on the exergetic aspects of lignocellulosic biofuels. Energy Convers. Manage. 212, 112792.
  50. United Nations Environment Programme, 2021. Emissions gap report 2021: the heat is on-a world of climate promises not yet delivered. Nairobi.
  51. Zamagni, A., Guinée, J., Heijungs, R., Masoni, P., Raggi, A., 2012. Lights and shadows in consequential LCA. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 17, 904-918.