Publication Details

Title : Lifecycle Analysis of Renewable Natural Gas and Hydrocarbon Fuels from Wastewater Treatment Plant's Sludge
Publication Date : September 27, 2016
Authors : U. Lee, J. Han, M. Demirtas, M. Wang, L. Tao
Abstract : Wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) produce sludge as a byproduct when they treat wastewater. In the United States, over 8 million dry tons of sludge are produced annually just from publicly owned WWTPs. Sludge is commonly treated in anaerobic digesters, which generate biogas; the biogas is then largely flared to reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Because sludge is quite homogeneous and has a high energy content, it is a good potential feedstock for other conversion processes that make biofuels, bioproducts, and power. For example, biogas from anaerobic digesters can be used to generate renewable natural gas (RNG), which can be further processed to produce compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG). Sludge can be directly converted into hydrocarbon liquid fuels via thermochemical processes such as hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL). Currently, the environmental impacts of converting sludge into energy are largely unknown, and only a few studies have focused on the environmental impacts of RNG produced from existing anaerobic digesters. As biofuels from sludge generate high interest, however, existing anaerobic digesters could be upgraded to technology with more economic potential and more environmental benefits. The environmental impacts of using a different anaerobic digestion (AD) technology to convert sludge into energy have yet to be analyzed. In addition, no studies are available about the direct conversion of sludge into liquid fuels. In order to estimate the energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions impacts of these alternative pathways (sludge-to-RNG and sludge-to-liquid), this study performed a lifecycle analysis (LCA) using the Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation (GREET®) model. The energy uses and GHG emissions associated with the RNG and hydrocarbon liquid are analyzed relative to the current typical sludge management case, which consists of a single-stage mesophilic digester with biogas flaring. Along with the alternative HTL process, four types of AD technologies with fuel production—single-stage mesophilic, mesophilic 2-stage, single-stage mesophilic with thermohydrolysis treatment, and mesophilic-mesophilic acid/gas phase—are studied. Results show that the sludge-to-CNG pathway via AD and the sludge-to-liquid pathway via HTL reduce GHG emissions consumptions significantly. When we compare the GHG emissions of the alternative fuel production pathways to that of the counterfactual case in terms of the amount of sludge treated, reductions in GHG emissions are 39%–80% and 87% for alternative AD and HTL, respectively. Compared to petroleum gasoline and diesel GHG emission results in terms of MJ, the renewable CNG production pathway via AD and the renewable diesel production pathway via HTL reduce GHG emissions by 193% and 46%, respectively. These large reductions are mainly due to GHG credits from avoiding GHGs under the counterfactual scenario, and/or fertilizer displacement credits. Similarly, reductions in fossil fuel use for sludge-based fuels are huge. However, well-defined counterfactual scenarios are needed because the results of the study depend on the counterfactual scenario, which might vary over time.

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