Life Cycle Assessment in a Civil Engineering Context

Objective

After selecting a sustainability issue to be explored in depth, define the scope of analysis, make informed decisions about functional units, boundary conditions, etc., and perform a full-fledged Life Cycle Assessment. Create a report documenting the results and explore possibilities of publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Background

            Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) “enables the estimation of the cumulative environmental impacts resulting from all stages in the product life cycle, often including impacts not considered in more traditional analyses (e.g., raw material extraction, material transportation, ultimate product disposal, etc.). By including the impacts throughout the product life cycle,  LCA provides a comprehensive view of the environmental aspects of the product or process and a more accurate picture of the true environmental trade-offs in product and process selection.”[1]

            LCA is a key conceptual tool for exploring any sustainability issue in depth and with quantitative rigor. The Sustainability in the Urban Environment program recognizes this with the required core course, Industrial Ecology and Life Cycle Analysis. This capstone project will allow a team of students to explore LCA in much greater depth, and in the context of a particular sustainability issue the team will help select.

            The topic will be one that is related to current issues in civil engineering. The general approach will be to focus on two alternative construction materials, structural members, or systems that serve the same function—and use LCA to compare their respective environmental impacts. Some possibilities:

  • Concrete pavement vs. asphalt pavement;
  • Concrete structural beams with conventional steel reinforcing rods vs. fiberglass reinforcing rods;
  • The emerging problem of used wind turbine blades: compare different options for reusing/recycling the fiberglass blades.

Suggested Approaches

(i)  Topic selection. In consultation with supervisor, select a current civil engineering-related sustainability challenge of interest to the team. Explore potential collaborations with NYC agencies via the Town+Gown program.

(ii)  Background research and problem definition. Review work done to date on the topic or related topics, and how LCA has been deployed in analogous contexts. Make initial decisions about functional unit, scope of analysis (cradle-to-gate being typical), boundary conditions, etc.

(iii)  Data collection and organization—in preparation for LCA.

(iv)  Conduct LCAs. Note that the team will likely have access to SimaPro and GaBi LCA software. After initial analyses, consider expanding scope of analysis beyond cradle-to-gate. Also consider performing some level of economic analyses of various options to put results in economic context.

(v) Prepare report. Write up project results, with recommendations. Explore possibilities of publication in academic journal(s).


[1] LCA Principles and Practices, May 2006. Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC) for USEPA.