New tool to assess sustainability is underway

A new project at Aarhus University will develop a novel tool for assessing sustainability using biorefineries as case studies.

2018.06.08 | Janne Hansen

Researchers from Aarhus University are developing a new tool for assessment of sustainability, using biorefineries as case studies. Photo: Jesper Rais

The EU is currently a net importer of energy. At the same time, at least 1.5 billion tons of material from agriculture go to waste. Some of the waste could be used to generate energy. This state of affairs can be improved if we become better at recycling agricultural waste in biorefinery systems. 

A new project that has received funding from a Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant under EU Horizon 2020, will contribute to addressing this issue.

If you want to improve a system, you must also be able to measure how well the system is doing. However, the overall environmental, economic and social consequences of implementing such biorefinery systems are poorly understood. This is where SABIR, the new research project at Aarhus University, comes in. The project aims to develop a novel tool for assessing sustainability and it will use biorefineries as case studies.

Assessing sustainability in a holistic way

At present, life cycle assessment (LCA) is one of the most commonly used methods to assess sustainability. It analyses products from cradle to grave to account for their impact on the ecosystem. However, sustainability must take more than the environment into account, so two additional methods have been developed. Life cycle costing (LCC) accounts for economic impacts, while social life cycle assessment (SLCA) accounts for impacts on society.  

These three methods combine forces in a life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA), which is the state-of-the-art method for sustainability studies today. But things can get even better.

- Although the current LCSA looks at the impacts of the analysed product or service in a more holistic way than LCA on its own, it is still lacking one important factor: feedback loops, says the leader of the new project postdoc Lelde Timma from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University.  

A dynamic tool includes feedback

To integrate feedback loops in the methodology, she will develop a novel dynamic sustainability assessment tool that uses both life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) and system dynamic analysis tools concurrently. The novel tool will be tested and validated in two case studies of biorefineries that include agricultural waste in their supply chains.  

- We have chosen biorefineries as cases because at the present most of their energy sources and raw materials stem from non-renewable resources. In addition, using renewable resources does not necessarily mean having a sustainable system, says Lelde Timma. 

To begin with, Lelde Timma and her colleagues at Aarhus University will define a reference system using state-of-the-art LCSA for biorefinery supply chains from agricultural waste. They will then develop and validate the new dynamic sustainability assessment tool for the case studies by combining system dynamics methodology and LCSA. They will carry out sensitivity analyses of the tool and assess policy scenarios. Finally, they will develop recommendations and transfer knowledge to stakeholders, such as biorefineries.

- We need systems that can transform local resources efficiently, provide jobs, and operate economically. Biorefineries have the potential for a large-scale production of high added-value bio-based products and fuels in a sustainable way, says Lelde Timma. 


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 798365.


For more information please contact postdoc Lelde Timma, Department of Agroecology, email: lelde.timma@agro.au.dk

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