Allocation results for a multi-output process in a life cycle assessment study depend on the definition of the unit process which can vary with the depth of a study. The unit process may be a manufacturing site, a sub-process, or an operational unit (e.g. distillation column or reactor). There are three different approaches to define a unit process: macroscopic approach, quasi-microscopic approach, and microscopic approach. In the macroscopic approach, a unit process is the manufacturing site, while a unit process in the quasi-microscopic approach is a sub-process of the manufacturing site. An operational unit becomes the unit process in the microscopic approach.
In the quasi-microscopic and the microscopic approaches, a process can be subdivided into a joint process, a physically separated process which is physically apart from other processes, and a fully separated process. Each type can be a unit process. Therefore, the multi-output process in the quasi-microscopic and the microscopic approaches can be subdivided among two or more unit processes depending on the actual operations.
The allocation in the fully separated process can be avoided because this process fulfills one function. In the joint process and the physically separated process, which deliver two or more functions, allocation is still required.
Ammonia manufacturing, where carbon dioxide is formed as a byproduct is given to show a specific detailed example of the allocation procedure by subdivision in ISO 14041. It is shown that the quasi-microscopic and the microscopic approaches can reduce the multi-output allocation of a given chemical product. Furthermore, the quasi-microscopic and the microscopic approaches are very useful in identifying key pollution prevention issues related with one product or function.