Our strong dependence on fossil fuels results from the intensive use and consumption of petroleum derivatives which, combined with diminishing oil resources, causes environmental and political concerns. The utilization of agricultural residues as raw materials in a biorefinery is a promising alternative to fossil resources for production of energy carriers and chemicals, thus mitigating climate change and enhancing energy security. This paper focuses on a biorefinery concept which produces bioethanol, bioenergy and biochemicals from two types of agricultural residues, corn stover and wheat straw. These biorefinery systems are investigated using a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach, which takes into account all the input and output flows occurring along the production chain. This approach can be applied to almost all the other patterns that convert lignocellulosic residues into bioenergy and biochemicals. The analysis elaborates on land use change aspects, i.e. the effects of crop residue removal (like decrease in grain yields, change in soil N2O emissions and decrease of soil organic carbon). The biorefinery systems are compared with the respective fossil reference systems producing the same amount of products/services from fossils instead of biomass. Since climate change mitigation and energy security are the two most important driving forces for biorefinery development, the assessment focuses on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and cumulative primary energy demand, but other environmental categories are evaluated as well. Results show that the use of crop residues in a biorefinery saves GHG emissions and reduces fossil energy demand. For instance, GHG emissions are reduced by about 50% and more than 80% of nonrenewable energy is saved. Land use change effects have a strong influence in the final GHG balance (about 50%), and their uncertainty is discussed in a sensitivity analysis. Concerning the investigation of the other impact categories, biorefinery systems have higher eutrophication potential than fossil reference systems. Based on these results, a residues-based biorefinery concept is able to solve two problems at the same time, namely find a use for the abundant lignocellulosic residues and ensure a mitigation effect for most of the environmental concerns related to the utilization of non-renewable energy resources. Therefore, when agricultural residues are used as feedstocks, best management practices and harvest rates need to be carefully established. In fact, rotation, tillage, fertilization management, soil properties and climate can play an important role in the determination of the amount of crop residue that can be removed minimizing soil carbon losses.
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