openLCA schema

The openLCA schema is the data exchange format of openLCA. It is the only format that supports all modeling features of openLCA and thus, a lossless data exchange.

Why another LCA data exchange format?

There are other LCA data formats, but the concepts of these formats are sometimes quite different or they are missing features that are important for openLCA. However, whenever possible we try to be compatible with these formats:

  • EcoSpold 1: It was one of the first standardized LCA data formats but it is not really used anymore. The format is nice and simple but quite some essential features are missing, like parameters and formulas. The openLCA schema adopted the general structure of processes, with inputs and outputs as exchanges, flexible schemes of allocation factors etc., from this format.
  • ISO/TS 14048: ISO 14048 defines the general requirements for inventory data in form of process data sets. The openLCA schema implements these requirements for process data sets.
  • SimaPro CSV: It is similar to EcoSpold 1 regarding the structural simplicity (which is good) and the fact that things are identified by names (which can be an issue in collaborative environments where name clashes could happen). It has some really nice concepts, like parameters on different levels, which was adopted in the openLCA schema. One thing that is really missing for openLCA in this format, is the concept of product systems: there is no way of linking the same processes differently in multiple product systems; everything is linked hard by name in this format. Also, there is no formal specification of this format; it is a proprietary format with some very specific properties.
  • ILCD: The nice concept of different data set types and references between data sets of this format was adopted for the openLCA schema. For data exchange (e.g. over web APIs), it has quite some advantages when not everything is stored in a single file. The openLCA schema has the same general concepts as the ILCD format. However, there are still quite some things missing in the ILCD format, like stand-alone global parameters, and other things are a bit strange (e.g. it has unit groups with unit conversions but there is no possibility for using these units for input and output amounts; LCIA method data sets in this format are in fact LCIA categories; etc.). With the extended ILCD format eILCD, it is now possible to also define linked product systems in this format, but eILCD has a concept of process instances (means copies of processes) in product systems which is not so practical for matrix based LCA software. Also, the linking is limited in eILCD: the same flow in two different exchanges of a process can be only linked to different processes when the location is different (a direct linking of exchanges is missing).
  • EcoSpold II: This format solves some problems of the EcoSpold I format (e.g. supports parameters and formulas, provides unique IDs for entities, etc.). However, it reflects more the structure and needs of the ecoinvent database (e.g. has a concept of parent and child activities) and thus, is rarely used in other contexts.

Finally, there are things that are not covered by these formats but supported in openLCA and the openLCA schema:

  • social indicators that can be linked as social aspects in processes
  • costs can be attached to every input and output of a process, also as formulas, with referenced currencies
  • allocation factors for multiple allocation methods can be stored in the same process, also using formulas (the calculation picks then the respective factors depending on the selected allocation method)
  • standalone LCIA categories that can be referenced in different LCIA methods, also supporting parameters and formulas
  • result data sets that can contain LCI and LCIA results
  • EPD data sets that can reference different result data sets for there respective life cycle stages / modules
  • product system data sets in which processes can be flexibly linked, also to sub-systems and results (yes, also results of EPDs)
  • ... and more

Format concepts

The openLCA schema is a typed data format with the type Entity as starting point. An Entity is basically a set of key-value pairs, also called fields. Every field has its specific type which can be:

  • a number (integer or floating point number),
  • a Boolean value (true or false),
  • a string,
  • again an Entity,
  • or a list of such values.

An entity type can inherit the fields from another entity type where the root of this inheritance tree is always Entity. The type RefEntity describes entities that can be referenced by a unique ID, stored in the field @id. Another data set can point to such a RefEntity via a Ref that contains that @id. With this, we do not need to repeat the information when the same data set is referenced multiple times (e.g. when the same flow is used in different processes).

A RootEntity describes a stand-alone data set, like a Flow or Process. These data set types form the root of an entity tree. All other entity types are always part of such an entity tree. For example, a Unit is not a RootEntity, it always lives within a UnitGroup. But it is a RefEntity because it can be referenced from other entities, e.g. in an Exchange of a process.

It should be quite easy to implement these concepts in common programming languages an serialization formats. In fact, such implementations can be directly generated from the schema definition.

Zip packages

For the data exchange with openLCA, openLCA schema data sets are typically packed as JSON serialized files in zip files. Data sets of the different root entity types are then stored in the following folders within such a zip file:


The name of the file is then the ID of the data set followed by the .json extension. At the root level, such a zip-file contains a olca-schema.json file that contains the version of the package format and possibly some other meta-data:

+ actors
  - 23af...e4.json
  - 1e32...f1.json
  - ...
+ ...
- olca-schema.json