TEA-LCA framework

Balancing the economy while saving the planet

Thursday 28 May 20
by Anne Lykke, Anders Mønsted

How the researchers conduct a TEA-LCA (a quick overview)

  • First stage is to conduct a TEA. Here you include the relevant mass and energy flows and you calculate the return on investment based on the operational and investment cost needed to market the new molecule. This gives you the economic indicator.
  • To make comparable results for the TEA and LCA, you perform the LCA based on the same mass and energy flows as used for the TEA.
  • The LCA results then need to be monetized. That can be done by assigning economic values to the different environmental damages caused by the before mentioned mass and energy flows. That can for example be damages caused by toxic effects or particulate matter from the process.
  • After performing the monetarization of the environmental damages, you have an economic indicator, which can be compared with the TEA results to assess the possible tradeoffs between the results of the two assessment methodologies in a framework.

A new research-based framework lets companies make informed decisions balancing economic and sustainability factors when producing biochemicals.

If you make your bio-product 100% sustainable it may be way too expensive to produce. If you make it less environmentally friendly, you may, at some point, end up having a feasible product that can compete on market terms. But is it still sustainable? This balancing game is very real to lots of companies producing bio-chemicals; that is chemicals produced from biomass instead of petroleum which chemicals are conventionally made from.


Now, a group of scientists specializing in so-called techno-economic analysis (TEA) and life cycle assessments (LCAs) have come up with a framework to ease this balancing. The framework is important to make informed decisions, explains Adjunct and first author behind a recent study in Trends in Biotechnology, Ólafur Ögmundarson:


“By combining economic and environmental impacts in a monetary single score we can measure the trade-offs between these two indicators when assessing sustainability of biochemicals or biochemical processes. This is necessary, because biochemicals are not per default sustainable just because they are bio-based,” he says.


Ólafur Ögmundarson, now Adjunct at University of Iceland, is former Senior Sustainable-Innovation Manager at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability at DTU, where he and his DTU co-workers performed most of this research.


Shifting the burden

With this framework, research and development units – both at universities and companies – can assess the true sustainability of biochemicals and optimize the performance both from an environmental and an economic viewpoint.


Basically, the framework can be used to find hotspots, or especially problematic steps, in the production process and help the company shift the burden on the balance to find the golden spot where economy and sustainability outweigh each other.


“There is a lot to gain by applying both methodologies for a truly sustainable future, because we all need chemicals and their different applications. We just need them to be sustainable!”


"Combining economic and environmental impacts (...) is necessary, because biochemicals are not per default sustainable just because they are bio-based"
Adjunct Ólafur Ögmundarson

Useful in early phase of development

This framework makes it possible to develop sustainable bio-chemicals by choosing the right biomass input, fermentation process, downstream processes etc. for a given bio-compound.


Without assessing both the environmental and economic sustainability from an early stage of development, companies may end up with some high-damage steps that could, or should, be eliminated.


“The framework might show that at an early stage of development it is possible to optimise a certain production step to get the highest return on investment and simultaneously cause the lowest environmental impacts. This framework is a way to assess the full impact of a product or process – not just looking at either economy or sustainability, which is unfortunately rather common today.”


Money talks

In order to make a TEA-LCA assessment and ending up with a monetary single score for a given bio-product, the researchers had to translate environmental impacts into a monetary value in order to compare economy and sustainability factors directly. This is imperative, Ólafur Ögmundarson explains:


“Let us take an example. A new molecule is being developed in a laboratory. It shows great market potential, and the economic indicator is, therefore, good. This is despite that a lot of energy, toxic chemicals and water are used in the production process. Because these inputs are cheap, they don’t have an impact on the economic indicator. But they have huge negative environmental impact. So, the environmental indicators have to be converted into money to count equally in the framework.”


The devil is in the detail

Unfortunately, this framework is not ‘plug-and-play’ to ordinary people and still require a lot of knowledge about TEA and LCA.


“To create an online tool for everyone to use would, of course, be ideal, but it is also not easy. The devil is in the detail. We need to know the estimated materials needed and energy inputs and outputs for the different process steps. So, based on the current setup of the framework, individual cases must be assessed independently.”


Going forward, the researchers hope to develop this framework further. This includes exploring other ways of monetizing environmental damages and expand which costs are included in the calculations.


“We need to find a way to include the social pillar of sustainability in the framework; worker’s rights, working conditions, salary etc. and we would welcome collaboration on developing the framework further. This applies to both researchers and companies,” he concludes.




Ólafur Ögmundarson, Sumesh Sukumara, Markus J. Herrgård & Peter Fantke (2020) Combining Environmental and Economic Performance for Bioprocess Optimization, Trends in Biotechnology (opinion), DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tibtech.2020.04.011




Q&A with the expert

So, is living sustainably always a choice between money and environment?

“In the perfect world living sustainably means doing that from an environmental, economic and social point of view. That is in the equilibrium where there is the most harmony between these three pillars of sustainability. In this framework we only include the environmental and economic pillars of sustainability giving us the tool to find the equilibrium between these two pillars avoiding tradeoffs (burden shifting) between them. Including the social indicator in the framework comes later and requires further research and development of the current framework.”


What is the most important take-home message from this paper?

“If we do not include assessing the environmental sustainability of biochemicals, we cannot claim that they are more sustainable than conventional fossil-based chemicals. And to find out where we need to optimize the biochemicals for a better environmental performance, we need to apply our framework.”


What is your advice to people who want to make green chemicals? What should they consider?

“Assess, assess, assess. That is to assess the economic and environmental sustainability potential of the molecules being developed and find out at an early stage what needs to be optimized for. That can be lower energy demand in the pretreatment process or use less toxic chemicals in the downstream processes to lower environmental impacts but also have a positive effect on the economic results.”


What do you hope will happen within this field of LCA and TEA?

“I hope that both methodologies will be further integrated in the design and scaling up of biochemicals so that we can truly state that our future biochemicals are sustainable, not only economically but also environmentally. This is necessary so that more people see biochemicals as an alternative to conventional fossil-based chemicals, because as for now, biochemicals have not been consistently shown to have a better environmental performance than fossil-based chemicals and they also halter behind when it comes to the economics.”

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