Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a method for quantifying the flows of energy and materials related to a product or process and for evaluating environmental impacts associated with these flows. Using LCA allows modellers to understand the environmental impacts attributed to construction, transportation, manufacturing, use, and disposal phases. LCA is a valuable tool for comparing the footprint of two products; it can tell us whether the life cycle of a paper cup results in more greenhouse gases than the life cycle of a plastic cup. We are starting an LCA of our cookstoves to understand how the different life cycle phases contribute to its local, regional, and global environmental impacts. We are also using LCA to study carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technologies.
Our research explores new methods for performing site-specific and region-specific LCA. One primary case study evaluates the environmental impacts attributed to managing large volumes of brine in different regions of the United States. Several industries produce large volumes of high salinity water (brine), including: the oil and gas industry, desalination plants, and geologic carbon capture and sequestration systems that extract brine for pressure management. Using a combination of geographic information science (GIS) and LCA methodology, we determined that local solutions are necessary to minimize the cost and environmental impacts of brine treatment, use, and disposal due to variable regional markets and characteristics. Our research is novel because it is capable of capturing regional “hotspots”. One waste management solution may cause extreme levels of environmental degradation in one region but may cause few environmental impacts in another. This method will be critical in assessing the true mitigation potential of emerging environmental energy technologies when introduced into society, markets, and the environment.