Analyzing Next-Generation Supply Chains Using the Materials Flows through Industry Tool

Scott Nicholson

Research output: NRELPresentation


The Materials Flows through Industry (MFI) tool is a supply chain modeling tool developed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) with funding from the Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office. MFI was created to identify and analyze opportunities to reduce the energy and carbon intensities of the U.S. industrial sector (Hanes and Carpenter 2017). In this work, we present an overview of the MFI tool's structure and capabilities, as well as the results of using MFI to analyze a novel NREL-developed process to 'upcycle' PET plastic into higher-value composite materials (Rorrer et al. 2019). This process combines recycled PET (rPET) plastic with inputs that can be derived from biomass, including muconic acid, acrylic acid, and ethylene glycol, to chemically break down the plastic back to its monomers in a process called glycolization. Then, repolymerization and the application of fiberglass yields the valuable glass fiber reinforced plastic (GFRP) composite, a performance material used in the manufacture of wind turbine blades, boat hulls, and other applications. This rPET-derived GFRP was found to have superior strength and fiberglass adhesion compared to conventional GFRP formulations. Our findings indicate that this GFRP production process, were it to be widely commercialized beyond its current lab-scale, could potentially reduce the fossil energy intensity of the GFRP supply chain by between 37% and 58% compared to the conventional method of GFRP manufacture from fossil-derived inputs. We also estimate potential supply chain greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions between 30% and 40% from this process. Scaling these GHG offset estimates up to annual GFRP production in the U.S. would be roughly equivalent to removing between 150,000 and 200,000 vehicles from U.S. roads. These ranges of impact estimates represent the range of differences associated with the various economic allocation methods we have assumed for the intensity contributions from the first life of the PET plastic. Following Shen et al. (2010), we derive economic allocation factors from the current price ratios of clear- and green-colored recycled PET plastic to virgin PET resin ('waste-valuation' approach) or assume them to be zero in a more simplistic allocation ('cutoff' approach). Future work involving the MFI modeling tool will also be discussed, including preliminary results comparing the energy intensity of conventional and bio-based nylons manufacturing. Attendees will also be encouraged to conduct MFI supply chain modeling of their own by requesting a user account on the MFI web application, which is freely available to the public at the following address:
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages14
StatePublished - 2019

Publication series

NamePresented at LCA XIX, 24-26 September 2019, Tucson, Arizona

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PR-6A20-74825


  • glycolization
  • Materials Flows through Industry
  • MFI
  • PET
  • recycle
  • upcycle


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