LCA shines bright light on REHAP’s market potential

Life cycle analysis has been a central pillar of the REHAP project, not only helping to establish the market potential of the project’s results but also helping steer the work towards a commercial outcome. With the preliminary analysis done at pilot scale, the LCA work is now concentrating on the development of clear business strategies based on optimised REHAP processes and products – and the signs are very encouraging that the project will have a significant impact on Europe’s bio-based industry and society as a whole. RINA’s Andrea Leoncini, who has led this work, explains more.

Q&A

Q: What has been the main purpose of the life cycle analysis and cost analysis in the REHAP project?

Andrea Leoncini: The main target of the analysis has been to assess the environmental and economic impacts of the bio-based products developed by the REHAP project along their life cycles.

A preliminary analysis of the processes developed at pilot scale has been carried out, but we are now starting to work on a full comparative analysis, from an environmental and economic point of view, between the REHAP products and processes and their selected fossil-based benchmarked equivalent products and this will be completed by the end of the project.

The reason we carry out these studies (LCA, LCC and Social-LCA) has been to foster possible commercialisation of REHAP products in the future; both the final products themselves, like the wooden panels and the cement, and the intermediate compounds like 1,4-BDO and 2,3-BDO. We do this by highlighting the potential benefits of the bio-based products in terms of their sustainability as well as their related value chains (including the supply chains), compared to the identified benchmarks solutions.

Q: How have you approached this task? What have you analysed?

AL: In terms of assessing environmental and economic sustainability, we have had to assess several processes developed by the project, and integrating these efficiently has been a challenge. Due to the different scales of the process steps and the involvement of several partners, the collection of reliable data represented a critical phase towards making these sustainability assessments.

To do it, we established strict cooperation rules with the different partners involved in developing the several processes from the start of the project. We aimed to make them all aware of our LCA, LCCA and Social-LCA methodologies and of the potential benefits that sustainability analysis can have in the further development phases of the targeted processes.

In particular, we assessed four main products with related value chains, all starting from agro-forestry lignocellulosic residues. These were:

  • BioPUR insulation foams
    • Wooden boards including biophenolic resins
    • Green concrete including biosuperplasticisers
    • BioPU adhesives

Q: What have been the key findings of this work?

AL: As mentioned above, only a preliminary analysis has been performed up to now, but based on these preliminary findings, optimisation and scale-up activities have been performed on each value chain, focusing on the hotspots identified in the preliminary assessments. ‘Hotspots’ mean the process steps/parts of the value chains entailing the highest impacts, from environmental and/or economic perspectives.

Although some process steps (the extraction of sugars, lignin and tannins from bark for example) seem to entail quite significant and relevant impacts, it should be considered that such processes have only been assessed at pilot scale so far, so they still need further optimisation and development activities. However, these process steps do show significant potential in terms of impacts reduction, mainly linked to:

  • The opportunity to recycle residuals and wastestreams, which can be used to recover energy, thus reducing the amount of resources required. Residuals and wastestreams can also be valorised into valuable products themselves, such as bio-fire retardants;
  • The optimisation of the operative conditions, which reduces the amount of energy and utilities consumed in the processes, as well as reducing the amount of enzymes used (indeed, the latter seems to entail a relevant share of the overall impacts of the processes).

Q: What are the main benefits of the products, materials and processes you have analysed? How do they compare to their fossil-based equivalents?

AL: The processes and products developed and optimised by REHAP have the potential to help the European bio-based industry to involve the primary sector effectively within their developed value chains, as well as to penetrate the market with high-value bio-based materials, and not only those limited to the construction sector. Indeed, the identification and development of feasible and sustainable alternatives for valorising agroforestry residues, other than being used for energy production, can pave the way to the creation of new value chains and bio-based concepts, where the primary sector is involved and considered not just as a “biomass supplier”, but as a key partner in fostering efficient and sustainable bio-based business cases.

Although a full comparison with fossil-based counterparts is still to be carried out, the developed processes represent significant ‘added-value’ compared to oil-based alternatives. Indeed, REHAP value chains are based on biomass feedstock: this means that a large part of the biogenic carbon (i.e. the atmospheric carbon captured via biomass in the carbon cycle) is retained in the final products. Moreover, the use of residual streams coming from agricultural and forest operations and the wide availability of such feedstock at EU level, will also guarantee the competitiveness of such materials compared to their fossil-based counterparts in terms of price stability, since they will be not subjected to fluctuations as the volatile prices of fossil-based resources are.

Q: Based on this extensive analysis, what do you see as the key potential to have emerged from REHAP? What are the commercial opportunities and how should these be best exploited?

AL: Sustainability criteria in terms of environmental, economic and social impacts are among the objectives of the project. One of the main targets of the project was to reduce the use of fossil resources as well as reduce the required energy and CO2 emissions in processing its products compared to similar commercially available processes.

In this framework, sustainability assessment activities through LCA methodologies have significantly helped all REHAP partners steer their development activities towards more efficient and sustainable processes and products which are able to compete favourably with existing benchmarks.

The expected increasing share of bio-based products, like bio-based plastics, within the chemicals market represents a favourable context in which REHAP products may effectively find application: this is particularly suitable in Europe, whose share of production capacities of bio-based polymers is expected to reach 25 per cent globally in 2022 (starting from 18 per cent in 2017).

The main industrial sector targeted in the project, which was the construction sector, also offers increasing market potential, mainly due to issues of sustainability in the sector, resources consumption or GHG emissions, for example. The research of new, sustainable bio-based alternatives that improve the ‘environmental aspects’ associated to the building sector will significantly foster an increase in the market uptake of REHAP products.

Several studies have also proved that price may not be a hurdle for the marketability of bio-based products when the higher price is offset by increased sustainability along with features and performances at least comparable with existing fossil-based counterparts.

Europe represents a thriving environment in this context: construction and furniture is the second largest sector in terms of turnover within EU bio-based economy, only preceded by the pulp and paper sector. Moreover, European policy and Europe’s regulatory framework is increasingly boosting the introduction of more sustainable and alternative solutions into target sectors, including into the building and construction sector.

So REHAP will contribute to the further growth of bio-based industries in Europe, paving the way for the introduction of sustainable bio-based products and materials at competitive prices within a strategic market like that of the construction sector.