Influence of spatially dependent, modeled soil carbon emission factors on life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of corn and cellulosic ethanol

Zhangcai Qin, Jennifer B. Dunn, Hoyoung Kwon, Steffen Mueller, Michelle M. Wander

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Converting land to biofuel feedstock production incurs changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) that can influence biofuel life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Estimates of these land use change (LUC) and life-cycle GHG emissions affect biofuels' attractiveness and eligibility under a number of renewable fuel policies in the USA and abroad. Modeling was used to refine the spatial resolution and depth extent of domestic estimates of SOC change for land (cropland, cropland pasture, grassland, and forest) conversion scenarios to biofuel crops (corn, corn stover, switchgrass, Miscanthus, poplar, and willow) at the county level in the USA. Results show that in most regions, conversions from cropland and cropland pasture to biofuel crops led to neutral or small levels of SOC sequestration, while conversion of grassland and forest generally caused net SOC loss. SOC change results were incorporated into the Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation (GREET) model to assess their influence on life-cycle GHG emissions of corn and cellulosic ethanol. Total LUC GHG emissions (g CO2eq MJ−1) were 2.1–9.3 for corn-, −0.7 for corn stover-, −3.4 to 12.9 for switchgrass-, and −20.1 to −6.2 for Miscanthus ethanol; these varied with SOC modeling assumptions applied. Extending the soil depth from 30 to 100 cm affected spatially explicit SOC change and overall LUC GHG emissions; however, the influence on LUC GHG emission estimates was less significant in corn and corn stover than cellulosic feedstocks. Total life-cycle GHG emissions (g CO2eq MJ−1, 100 cm) were estimated to be 59–66 for corn ethanol, 14 for stover ethanol, 18–26 for switchgrass ethanol, and −7 to −0.6 for Miscanthus ethanol. The LUC GHG emissions associated with poplar- and willow-derived ethanol may be higher than that for switchgrass ethanol due to lower biomass yield.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1136-1149
Number of pages14
JournalGCB Bioenergy
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • GREET model
  • Miscanthus
  • land use change
  • life cycle analysis
  • poplar
  • surrogate CENTURY model
  • switchgrass
  • willow

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Waste Management and Disposal


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