Yeah, you read that right. We are going to talk about coffee. Coffee… “Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure like an angel, and sweet like love”. What? I like coffee, OK? Sue me!
Legend has it that the origin of coffee can be traced to the day when an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) goatherd named Kaldi observed his goats uncharacteristically dancing around. Upon investigating, he found that the goats had eaten the red berries and shiny leaves of an unfamiliar tree. When he tried some himself, he became “the happiest herder in happy Arabia.” Kaldi took the fruit to some monks and that is how coffee began its journey around the world.
Coffee… “Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure like an angel, and sweet like love”
Coffee has come a long way since that day. Today, the global coffee industry is a $42.5 billion industry. Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day, equivalent to 146 billion cups of coffee per year. Coffee powers up the mornings of almost 75% of the world’s population.
However, it turns out that it has the potential to power up more than just humans.
Used coffee grounds have been turned into a cheap, renewable bio-fuel in the form of imitation wood logs and pellets that can be used in wood-burning stoves and other fuel based furnaces, according to a young London-based entrepreneur, Arthur Kay. He also claims that the coffee logs will cost half the price of wood or charcoal.
“It turns out that it has the potential to power up more than just humans. Used coffee grounds have been turned into a cheap, renewable bio-fuel”
Bio-bean, Kay’s company, collects coffee waste from a network of coffee shops, retailers, airports and coffee factories, and turns them into bio-fuel. According to their press release “The grounds are stripped of oil and packed together to form small bricks, which do not release an aroma when burnt, despite being made from used coffee”. Six tonnes of coffee grounds are needed to produce one ton of bio-diesel and Bio-bean has the capacity to make 50,000 tonnes of biomass at its Cambridge factory each year. However, the process used to make this transformation is not an easy one. Let’s break it down.
In the traditional process, coffee grounds are mixed with hexane (used for making glues for shoes and leather products among other things) and cook the mixture at 60°C for between 1-2 hours. Delicious. The hexane is then evaporated to leave behind the oils – kind of like baking cookies. Methanol (the toxic sister of alcohol) and a catalyst are then added to make a kind of bio-diesel and a wasteful by-product — which then also needs separating. Whew! That’s complicated.
Luckily, researchers at Lancaster University have found a way to significantly improve the efficiency of the process- vastly increasing bio-fuel from coffee’s commercial competitiveness! A team of smarty-pants at the university, led by Dr. Vesna Najdanovic-Visak, found they are able to combine all the processes mentioned above and eliminate the need to use hexane altogether. This resulted in zero chemical waste and by-products as well. The best part – the process now takes 10 minutes to gain the same yield of fuel from the spent coffee grounds. That’s roughly the same amount of time to make one cup of coffee for yourself!
Using coffee grounds, a waste product, instead of more traditional bio-fuel sources such as food waste presents greater ecological benefits. Surplus and leftover crop products can be used in better ways to fight the world hunger problem and leave the bio-fuel generation to actual waste materials. Like Dr. Visak states, “Anything that you use in fuel production which doesn’t compete with crops grown for food, is better.”
Some major coffee chains like Nestle and Costa are already waking up and smelling the coffee. They have started looking into mass commercialization of coffee generated bio-fuel generation and sale. Bio bean stated a forecast turnover of £7.5 million this year. Then there are the countless ecological advantages of a source of fuel that is truly renewable.
And besides, I mean, imagine a world where all of human civilization is powered by coffee – both literally and figuratively.