, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 547-565

First online:

An economic and environmental comparison of a biochemical and a thermochemical lignocellulosic ethanol conversion processes

  • Thomas D. FoustAffiliated withNational Bioenergy Center, National Renewable Energy Laboratory Email author 
  • , Andy AdenAffiliated withNational Bioenergy Center, National Renewable Energy Laboratory
  • , Abhijit DuttaAffiliated withNational Bioenergy Center, National Renewable Energy Laboratory
  • , Steven PhillipsAffiliated withNational Bioenergy Center, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

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With the world’s focus on rapidly deploying second generation biofuels technologies, there exists today a good deal of interest in how yields, economics, and environmental impacts of the various conversion processes of lignocellulosic biomass to transportation fuels compare. Although there is a good deal of information regarding these conversion processes, this information is typically very difficult to use on a comparison basis because different underlying assumptions, such as feedstock costs, plant size, co-product credits or assumed state of technology, have been utilized. In this study, a rigorous comparison of different biomass to transportation fuels conversion processes was performed with standard underlying economic and environmental assumptions so that exact comparisons can be made. This study looked at promising second-generation conversion processes utilizing biochemical and thermochemical gasification technologies on both a current and an achievable state of technology in 2012. The fundamental finding of this study is that although the biochemical and thermochemical processes to ethanol analyzed have their individual strengths and weaknesses, the two processes have very comparable yields, economics, and environmental impacts. Hence, this study concludes that based on this analysis there is not a distinct economic or environmental impact difference between biochemical and thermochemical gasification processes for second generation ethanol production.


Biofuel Biochemical Thermochemical Biomass Feedstock Ethanol Corn stover Gasification Catalyst Fuel synthesis Pretreatment Enzymatic hydrolysis Fermentation Energy efficiency Emission Inhibitor Recycle Mixed alcohol