Improving innovation: Assessing the environmental impacts of emerging technology

(Nanowerk News) Although many new technologies offer the promise to improve human welfare, they can also produce unintended environmental consequences. And while applying the principles of life cycle assessment (LCA) early in technology development can provide important insights about how to avoid damage to the environment, existing methods focus on products or processes that are already commercially established.
Meanwhile, the procedures and tools used to assess emerging technologies tend to be applied on an ad hoc basis, with no clear guidelines as to what methods are available, applicable or appropriate.
A new special issue of Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology addresses this gap with cutting edge research that advances methods, tests new approaches against emerging technologies, and assesses novel technologies for transportation, infrastructure, energy, and materials.
The special issue,“Life Cycle Assessment for Emerging Technologies”, includes findings withfar-reaching implications for technology developers and policy makers.
For example, two papers reveal the potential environmental consequences of the rapid increase in production of the lithium-ion battery packs that power everything from electric cars to portable computing devices ("Understanding the future of lithium: Part 2, temporally and spatially resolved life-cycle assessment modeling").
In contrast to earlier analyses, these studies show that, on a global scale, expansion of lithium production is likely to continue without being slowed by resource constraints for up to three more decades ("Understanding the future of lithium: Part 1, resource model").
Meanwhile, localized environmental impacts associated with extraction and processing of high-grade lithium ion brines are likely to create geographic imbalances in the environmental impacts and benefits of that expansion.
The issue also includes papers on fresh approaches to comparative assessment of emergingenergy technologies. These new analyses make clear that the age of single-technology solutions at massive, industrial scales is coming to a close. The papers here examine environmental impact of alternative energy futures for algae-derived fuels ("Environmental impacts and limitations of third-generation biobutanol: Life cycle assessment of n-butanol produced by genetically engineered cyanobacteria "),hydrogen ("A region-specific environmental analysis of technology implementation of hydrogen energy in Japan based on life cycle assessment"),solar ("Environmental and economic impacts of solar-powered integrated greenhouses"), and off-shore wind energy technologies ("Site-specific life cycle assessment of a pilot floating offshore wind farm based on suppliers’ data and geo-located wind data").
“The research in this issue advances not only the understanding and methods for the environmental assessment of novel technologies,italso shows the potential for refashioning the tools of systematic environmental assessment to apply at the earliest stages of the innovation cycle,” said Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology.
Another innovation is the creation of LCA inventories (databases) thatcan be aligned with the scenarios used in the integrated assessment models (IAMs) widely used in climate change modeling ("When the Background Matters: Using Scenarios from Integrated Assessment Models in Prospective Life Cycle Assessment").
Methods to incorporate technology readiness levels (TRLs) that are used in R&D management allowconnection of LCA with other complementary tools such as multicriteria decision analysis, risk analysis, techno-economic analysis, and the development of data repositories for emerging materials, processes, and technologies.
Source: Yale University
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