Master’s thesis for SPIRIT programme compared carbon footprint of the ethylene production calculated with different allocation methods

Toni Sundström works at Borealis as Manager for Continuous improvement. He was offered an opportunity to conduct his Master’s study for the SPIRIT programme, with a focus on the SPIRIT research theme on renewable feedstock. The aim of the study was to calculate and illustrate the emission impact of producing ethylene from fossil- and bio-based feedstocks. 

Toni Sundström has worked in the refinery and petrochemical industry for 20 years already. His passion for continuous learning led him to take upon studies at JAMK University of Applied Sciences in Jyväskylä. Inspired by an idea by Auli Nummila-Pakarinen at Borealis, Toni jumped at the opportunity to conduct his thesis for the SPIRIT programme and as a result, he not only successfully completed his thesis but found a new source of inspiration in the study of sustainable feedstocks and their carbon footprint.

The link of the study to the SPIRIT programme is found in the first research theme, which aims to explore the transition to renewable feedstock. According to Toni, it is important to evaluate renewable feedstock critically to be able to estimate the total carbon footprint in the end-to-end feedstock value chain.

Toni starts by saying how important it is to find new ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases generated by industries and one way is to use more sustainable feedstocks. A total switch to bio-feedstock often requires technical changes to the process and oftentimes the availability of bio-feedstock does not meet the demand of the industry, either. Petrochemical industry falls into this sector. Plastics are irreplaceable materials for many applications but their production generates fossil-based greenhouse gases and recycling rate is still rather low. One way to reduce fossil-based greenhouse gases is to increase the amount of bio or circular feedstocks to steam crackers. Steam crackers produce olefins which are the main building blocks for producing polyolefin plastics.

The aim of Toni’s study was to calculate and illustrate the emission impact of producing ethylene from fossil- and bio-based feedstocks, based on public data sources. In addition, the study compared the impact of different allocation methods on the CO2 footprint of ethylene production.

Through the research questions, variations in the resulting calculated carbon footprints could be demonstrated, depending on the feedstock and allocation method. The results indicated that the impact of biogenic carbon dioxide removal on the product’s carbon footprint is significant. Different allocation methods also demonstrated substantial variability in product carbon footprints. Toni concludes that  the transparency of calculations underlying the product’s carbon footprint and the emission factors used is essential. Without background information, comparing carbon footprints might not be reliable.

Toni says: ”My thesis provides an example to companies as to how the carbon footprint could be evaluated and how we must be able to provide reliable background information to accompany carbon footprint calculations. The upcoming EU directives are bound to bring more substance to this work but in the meanwhile, companies must take a close look at their manufacturing processes and their carbon footprint. This will bring added value to customers when the emission factors are backed up by reliable data.”

Auli Nummila-Pakarinen, who is one of the current theme leaders in the SPIRIT Programme, acted as the supervisor for Toni’s Master’s study. She concludes: “Toni’s work gives a concrete example on the challenge to compare environmental impacts by using just one indicator. The challenge becomes even greater with increased number of feedstock sources and increased complexity of value chains. It is important that calculations in each step are based on primary data collected over a defined representative time interval.”


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