Josephine Wouda Kuipers, an MEng student in Mechanical Engineering, described her journey with Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in exploring her passions.
How my Master’s Project in Life Cycle Analysis introduced me to the area of Sustainability
My experience and interest in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and sustainability began during my internship at Shell in the summer of 2019. The year was a turning point in the transition towards climate neutral heating in Germany, where I lived before moving to London. Throughout the year hundreds of thousands of people publicly demanded actions to prevent climate change and the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and in March of that year the German government set up the Climate Cabinet. This intended to ensure that the 2050 climate protection plan from 2016 is implemented and that all 2030 climate protection goals are met. Decarbonising the heating sector is important for achieving these aims, as buildings currently produce around 30% of the total CO2 emissions and use 35% of the total energy.
In September 2019 I was working at Shell in Hamburg, Germany, when the Climate Cabinet presented plans on how to achieve these 2030 aims in the transport and heating sector. One of the consequences was a ban on all new oil boilers from 2026, when not installed in a hybrid configuration or when renewable systems can be implemented. In the UK, houses are rarely heated with oil, but in Germany 28% of 20.7 million central heating systems (in 2018) still rely on heating oil. Therefore, the question arose on what other viable alternatives to oil boilers exist, especially for rural Germany, where around 77% of all the oil boilers are installed.
When these plans were published, I was excited to be working on a project at Shell which was relevant, as I was assessing the financial viability of different home heating systems. The focus was to calculate the total cost of ownership related to replacing an old oil or gas boiler with a newer, more efficient model or choosing alternative heating systems, such as a heat pump, pellet boiler or solar thermal panels. As I was about to start my fourth year studying Mechanical Engineering in the summer of 2019, I decided to extend the work I did with Shell into a Master’s Project, supervised by Prof. Peter Lindstedt and PhD student, Daniel Greenblatt. While the focus at Shell was more financial, the Master’s Project allowed me to consider the environmental effects of promising home heating alternatives in a rural setting, through the completion of LCA with a “cradle-to-grave” scope. LCA provides a professional method to compare natural gas condensing boilers, ground sourced heat pumps (GSHP) and pellet boilers, on the basis of their energy requirements, emissions and environmental impacts. When modelling the production, operation, transportation and end-of-life phases, I needed to consider the multiple disciplines I had learnt in the first years of my degree.
By implementing the holistic approach of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), it became apparent to me that in order to transition towards a more sustainable way of life, we must consider the environmental and societal impacts of a product’s whole life cycle in a comprehensive and structured way. My Master’s Project also allowed me to connect multiple modules I had explored in the first three years of my Mechanical Engineering degree, such as thermofluids, materials and design. This was an exciting opportunity, as previously the modules I had taken tended to focus only on the subtopics within that module, rather than considering the interaction between the modules, which is especially important in tackling the sustainability challenges we are facing in the 21st century.
The LCA results suggested that a combination of GSHPs, with a decarbonised electricity grid, and pellet boilers dispersed in rural Germany was the most promising route to decarbonise the German rural heating sector. This is based on the GSHP requiring only 66-71% of the energy input of the other two systems, and on the fact that pellet boilers produce the least greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with a reduction of 80-92%, compared to the natural gas boiler. Similarly, the GSHP reduced the GHG emissions by 50%, with further potential to decarbonise by increasing the share of renewable electricity in the electricity mix. However, installing pellet boilers on a large scale must be done with caution, as compared to the other two systems it has the highest adverse impact on human health, with comparably high particulate matter, NOx and CO emissions from the combustion of the pellets.
Implementing LCA during my Master’s Project was an important step in exploring my passion for sustainability, which is something I want to now further develop, having completed my Mechanical Engineering degree. LCA shows that the aim of sustainability is complex, and optimisation must occur in different processes and stages of a product’s life cycle. However, LCA provides a professional, thorough and unbiased method to analyse what we must do to transition towards a more environmentally responsible way of life.
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