Date of Award

Winter 12-2016

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering and Public Policy


W. Michael Griffin


Biomass is the world’s largest renewable energy source, accounting for approximately 10% of global primary energy supply, and 5% of energy consumed in the United States. Prominent national programs like the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard incentivize increased use of biomass, primarily as a transportation fuel. There has been comparatively little government support for using biomass as a renewable feedstock for the chemical sector. Such asymmetry in incentives can lead to sub-optimal outcomes in the allocation of biomass toward different uses. Greenhouse gas reduction is among the most cited benefits of bioenergy and bio-based products, however, there is increasing controversy about whether increased use of biomass can actually contribute to greenhouse gas emission targets. If biomass is to play a role in current and future greenhouse gas mitigation efforts its use should be guided by efficient use of natural and economic resources. This thesis addresses these questions through a series of case studies, designed to highlight important tradeoffs in the use of biomass for greenhouse gas mitigation. Should biomass be used as a fuel, a chemical feedstock, or neither? The first case study in this thesis focuses on the ‘fuel vs feedstock’ question, examining the greenhouse gas implications of expanding the scope of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard to include credits for bioethylene, an important organic chemical readily produced from bioethanol. Results suggest that an expanded policy that includes bioethylene as an approved use for ethanol would provide added flexibility without compromising greenhouse gas targets – a clear win scenario. Having established that bioethylene based plastics can achieve similar greenhouse gas reductions to bioethanol used as fuel, this thesis expands the analysis by considering how the greenhouse gas emissions from a wider range of bio-based plastics compare to each of the main commodity thermoplastics produced in the U.S. The analysis demonstrates that there are large uncertainties involved in the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from bio-based plastics, and that only a subset of pathways are likely to be preferable to conventional plastics. The following chapter then builds on the existing model to compare the greenhouse gas mitigation potential of bio-based plastics to the potential for reducing emissions by adopting low carbon energy for plastics production. That chapter concludes that switching to renewable energy across the supply chain for conventional plastics energy cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 50-75%, achieving a greater reduction, with less uncertainty and lower cost, than switching to corn-based biopolymers – the most likely near-term biopolymer option. In the long run, producing bio-based plastics from advanced feedstocks (e.g. switchgrass) and/or with renewable energy likely offers greater emission reductions. Finally, this thesis returns to the dominant form of policy surrounding biomass use: biofuel mandates. That study takes a consequential approach to the ‘fuel or neither’ question. Specifically, this work examines how petroleum refineries are likely to adjust their production in response to biofuel policies, and what this implies for the success of these policies. The research demonstrates that biofuel policies induce a shift toward greater diesel production at the expense of both gasoline and non-combustion petroleum products. This has the potential to result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, even before accounting for the emissions from producing the biofuels themselves.

Available for download on Friday, November 16, 2018