A First Year Introduction to Life Cycle Analysis

At Rowan University, we have developed a module to introduce first year engineering students to life cycle assessment (LCA) through the comparison of the environmental impact of the production of three diesel fuels: petroleum diesel, biodiesel from new vegetable oil, and
biodiesel from waste vegetable oil. The purpose of this LCA module was to incorporate life cycle thinking into the engineering design process, to apply the four main steps of LCA (definition and scope, inventory analysis, impact assessment and improvement assessment), and to recognize modifications that would improve the environmental impact of the biodiesel process. Students first produced biodiesel fuel in the laboratory by the reaction of new vegetable oil and methanol with a sodium hydroxide catalyst; contaminants were removed from the product using washing with water. Next students pretreated and reacted waste vegetable oil to form biodiesel, and an alternative ion exchange process was used to remove contaminants. A life cycle inventory was developed for each process using student data from the laboratory experiment. Life cycle analysis was then conducted using SimaPro® for each process and also for petroleum diesel as a base case. The assessment of learning outcomes indicates a significant increase in conceptual understanding of life cycle assessment in every category, and an average gain of over 60% in overall knowledge of life cycle assessment.

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