Uncertainty in Techno-Economic Estimates of Cellulosic Ethanol Production Due to Experimental Measurement Uncertainty

Kristin J. Vicari, Sai Sandeep Tallam, Tatyana Shatova, Koh Kang Joo, Christopher J. Scarlata, David Humbird, Edward J. Wolfrum, Gregg T. Beckham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus Citations


Background: Cost-effective production of lignocellulosic biofuels remains a major financial and technical challenge at the industrial scale. A critical tool in biofuels process development is the techno-economic (TE) model, which calculates biofuel production costs using a process model and an economic model. The process model solves mass and energy balances for each unit, and the economic model estimates capital and operating costs from the process model based on economic assumptions. The process model inputs include experimental data on the feedstock composition and intermediate product yields for each unit. These experimental yield data are calculated from primary measurements. Uncertainty in these primary measurements is propagated to the calculated yields, to the process model, and ultimately to the economic model. Thus, outputs of the TE model have a minimum uncertainty associated with the uncertainty in the primary measurements. Results: We calculate the uncertainty in the Minimum Ethanol Selling Price (MESP) estimate for lignocellulosic ethanol production via a biochemical conversion process: dilute sulfuric acid pretreatment of corn stover followed by enzymatic hydrolysis and co-fermentation of the resulting sugars to ethanol. We perform a sensitivity analysis on the TE model and identify the feedstock composition and conversion yields from three unit operations (xylose from pretreatment, glucose from enzymatic hydrolysis, and ethanol from fermentation) as the most important variables. The uncertainty in the pretreatment xylose yield arises from multiple measurements, whereas the glucose and ethanol yields from enzymatic hydrolysis and fermentation, respectively, are dominated by a single measurement: the fraction of insoluble solids (fIS) in the biomass slurries. Conclusions: We calculate a $0.15/gal uncertainty in MESP from the TE model due to uncertainties in primary measurements. This result sets a lower bound on the error bars of the TE model predictions. This analysis highlights the primary measurements that merit further development to reduce the uncertainty associated with their use in TE models. While we develop and apply this mathematical framework to a specific biorefinery scenario here, this analysis can be readily adapted to other types of biorefining processes and provides a general framework for propagating uncertainty due to analytical measurements through a TE model.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number23
Number of pages24
JournalBiotechnology for Biofuels
StatePublished - 2012

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-7A30-55281


  • Biochemical conversion
  • Enzymatic hydrolysis
  • Fermentation
  • Pretreatment
  • Process modeling
  • Techno-economic modeling


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