Second generation ethanol bioconversion technologies are under demonstration-scale development for the production of lignocellulosic fuels to meet the US federal Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS2). Bioconversion technology utilizes the fermentable sugars generated from the cellulosic fraction of the feedstock, and most commonly assumes that the lignin fraction may be used as a source of thermal and electrical energy. We examine the life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission and techno-economic cost tradeoffs for alternative uses of the lignin fraction of agricultural residues (corn stover, and wheat and barley straw) produced within a 2000 dry metric ton per day ethanol biorefinery in three locations in the United States. We compare three scenarios in which the lignin is (1) used as a land amendment to replace soil organic carbon (SOC); (2) separated, dried and sold as a coal substitute to produce electricity; and (3) used to produce electricity onsite at the biorefinery. Results from this analysis indicate that for life cycle GHG intensity, amending the lignin to land is lowest among the three ethanol production options (−25 to −2 g CO2e MJ−1), substituting coal with lignin is second lowest (4–32 g CO2e MJ−1), and onsite power generation is highest (36–41 g CO2e MJ−1). Moreover, the onsite power generation case may not meet RFS2 cellulosic fuel requirements given the uncertainty in electricity substitution. Options that use lignin for energy do so at the expense of SOC loss. The lignin–land amendment option has the lowest capital cost among the three options due to lower equipment costs for the biorefinery's thermal energy needs and use of biogas generated onsite. The need to purchase electricity and uncertain market value of the lignin–land amendment could raise its cost compared to onsite power generation and electricity co-production. However, assuming a market value ($50–$100/dry Mg) for nutrient and soil carbon replacement in agricultural soils, and potentially economy of scale residue collection prices at higher collection volumes associated with low SOC loss, the lignin–land amendment option is economically and environmentally preferable, with the lowest GHG abatement costs relative to gasoline among the three lignin co-product options we consider.
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