Life Cycle Assessment of Biofuels 101

Contributor
Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Types
Activity , Graph , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Model
Note
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.

Reviews

Description

This activity asks students to consider the life cycle energy and carbon dioxide emission costs of gasoline, corn ethanol, and cellulosic ethanol. The various pieces help students trace energy and matter through a complex system and critically analyze graphical comparisons of different fuels.

 

Students work through four parts, including a pre-assessment activity of their knowledge of biofuels and sustainability. In Part 2, they learn about corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol. In Part 3,  they complete a life cycle assessment of the three fuels and in Part 4, they complete a graphical analysis of the energy efficiency of the three fuels


The suggested time required is two or three, fifty minute class periods. Teachers have two different options for part two, that may change the amount of time required for the activity. Included are teacher and student pages, Powerpoint presentations, and supplemental readings and videos.

Intended Audience

Educator
Educational Level
  • High School
Language
English
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

HS-ESS3-4 Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.

Clarification Statement: Examples of data on the impacts of human activities could include the quantities and types of pollutants released, changes to biomass and species diversity, or areal changes in land surface use (such as for urban development, agriculture and livestock, or surface mining). Examples for limiting future impacts could range from local efforts (such as reducing, reusing, and recycling resources) to large-scale geoengineering design solutions (such as altering global temperatures by making large changes to the atmosphere or ocean).

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students are initially asked to think about which type of fuel source, gasoline or ethanol, is better. They then explore two different biofuels, along with gasoline, to determine if their original choice has changed. Students must take into consideration different factors, such as sustainability and costs (production, land use, climate change, and carbon footprint) to explain their position.

HS-ESS3-2 Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the conservation, recycling, and reuse of resources (such as minerals and metals) where possible, and on minimizing impacts where it is not. Examples include developing best practices for agricultural soil use, mining (for coal, tar sands, and oil shales), and pumping (for petroleum and natural gas). Science knowledge indicates what can happen in natural systems—not what should happen.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students are evaluating three different fuel sources for energy production. They are asked about which source they believe is the most sustainable at the end of the activity and why. Students are exposed to scientific ideas and principles throughout the activity, with the most focus during parts two and three. In part two, students learn about biofuels either through readings, videos, or teacher lecture. In part three, students explore or generate a life cycle assessment of biofuels. Students use this information, along with graphical information in part four, to develop their argument. . To fully address the practice, teachers will need to address other relevant factors which are not addressed as part of the activity. While the environmental factor is somewhat addressed in part four, it is not a main focus of the activity. Teachers could have students look further into these factors by doing the Stabilization Wedges (http://cmi.princeton.edu/wedges/game.php) game or Energy and the Poor: Black Carbon (http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/energy/activities/32421.html) activities.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students are evaluating three different fuel sources for energy production. They are asked about which source they believe is the most sustainable at the end of the activity and why. Students are exposed to scientific ideas and principles throughout the activity, with the most focus during parts two and three. In part two, students learn about biofuels either through readings, videos, or teacher lecture. In part three, students explore or generate a life cycle assessment of biofuels. Students use this information, along with graphical information in part four, to develop their argument. To fully address the practice, teachers will need to address other relevant factors which are not addressed as part of the activity. While the environmental factor is somewhat addressed in part four, it is not a main focus of the activity. Teachers could have students look further into these factors by doing the Stabilization Wedges (http://ngss.nsta.org/Resource.aspx?ResourceID=612) game or Energy and the Poor: Black Carbon (http://ngss.nsta.org/Resource.aspx?ResourceID=651) activities.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students research and role play the life cycles of three types of fuel sources for energy. In the third part, if students do option 1 - Walk-through Life Cycle Assessment of Biofuel Production, they generate a life cycle for biofuels. In part four, students evaluate graphical data of energy input versus output for each of the three fuel sources as well as costs of greenhouse gas emissions. At the end of part four, students are asked to revisit their best choice for fuel from part one and reevaluate their choice based on their new information. To fully address the practice, teachers could have students design a plan for the best way to produce energy. This could be done using the Stabilization Wedges (http://ngss.nsta.org/Resource.aspx?ResourceID=612) activity.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students are not explicitly being asked to evaluate the three fuel choices by looking at various constraints and impacts. Teachers will need to instruct students to think about these constraints and impacts when they explain which transportation fuel is most sustainable. Teachers could have students do the Stabilization Wedges game to increase the focus on different constraints and impacts.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
While looking at the last graph comparing greenhouse gas costs for gasoline, corn ethanol, and cellulosic ethanol, students are told that estimates of emissions for both types of ethanol can differ greatly depending on where and how the crop is grown, as well as the type of crop for cellulosic ethanol. To make this more explicit, teachers could have students research further into the best practice in ethanol production to generate the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Land use is also briefly mentioned, but is not a major focus. Teachers could require students do more research into what changes in land use would have the least amount environmental impact.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students evaluate three forms of energy production based on their lifecycles, energy input versus output, and greenhouse gas costs. They look at the difference between corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol as two newer technologies for energy production. To fully address the disciplinary core idea, students will need to take into consideration all costs, risks, and benefits of each of the technologies. Teachers can have students do an extension to look deeper into each of the three types of fuel or do the Stabilization Wedges game.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In part three, students generate a life cycle assessment for biofuels. During this portion, in either option, students are directed to identify both energy and matter input and output at each step in the biofuel production life cycle. Students must also consider how energy and matter flows within each of the three fuel choices for energy production when evaluating their opinion of the most sustainable type of fuel.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Students work with multiple practices to engage in disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts to make sense of sustainable energy production. Students are engaged in constructing explanations and evaluating design solutions when they use evidence to support their opinion of the most sustainable fuel source based on their experiences throughout the activity. Students are engaged in engaging in argument from evidence when they evaluate three different fuel sources for energy production. They must use evidence to explain why they chose which fuel source was the most sustainable for energy production. Students are engaged in three disciplinary core ideas, natural resources, human impacts on earth's systems, and developing possible solutions, to gain understanding of the life cycle of biofuels and energy production. None of the three disciplinary core ideas are fully addressed, but teachers can tie-in other activities to fully address each disciplinary core idea. Students explicitly use the crosscutting concept of energy and matter in part three where they simulate and/or generate a life cycle assessment of biofuels. Students should also take into consideration energy and matter flow in their final decision in part four. Students must actively use all three dimensions of learning in order to support their opinion of which fuel source is the best and most sustainable. When students develop their final assessment of which fuel is the most sustainable and why, they are actively using both practices, portions of each disciplinary core idea, and the crosscutting concept to explain their choice.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are investigating energy production. While this is important to students, they are not presented with any phenomenon that could be a motivating factor for the activity. Students are guided through a simulation exploring the lifecycle of biofuels which gives them a representation of how energy is produced from planting the crop to producing energy. Students should have prior knowledge of the carbon cycle, energy transfer, global climate change, and the energy crisis. Teachers may need to build-in some prior knowledge if students are deficient in any of the identified areas. All information presented to students is scientifically accurate and grade-level appropriate. There are multiple opportunities for feedback during discussions, both small and large group, in parts one, three, and four. While there are no suggestions to connect instruction to students home, neighborhood, community, and/or culture, students should be able to relate to energy production since it provides electricity and fuel for transportation. Teachers are given a few choices for part two to present information to students. Teachers could choose from a Powerpoint presentation, readings, or videos. It would be up to the teachers to develop and design any reading guides or other activities to support struggling students. Teachers can also choose between two options in part three. The Walkthough activity is more open-ended while the paper option is more guidee. Teachers could use the paper version to help students if they are struggling with the Walkthrough option. No extension activities are suggested.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Students must use three dimensional learning to make sense of the most sustainable way to produce energy. Teachers can see evidence of three dimensional learning during parts three and four where students make sense of a life cycle analysis and defend their opinions. Formative assessments are found throughout the activity. In part one, teachers can assess prior knowledge of carbon cycle, global climate change, and energy transfer. Parts three and four include questions teachers can use for formative assessment. An answer key to questions found in parts three and four is provided as well as key points that need to be brought up during discussions. No rubrics or scoring guides are provided. It would be up to the teacher to develop or design a scoring guide and rubric for the students argumentation from evidence in part four. Assessment of student proficiency uses a variety of methods that are accessible and unbiased.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Teachers will need a computer with internet access to show videos.