How coffee could 'give a lift' in another way

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

Research to turn spent coffee grounds into fuel has intensified. But can a good idea in theory become a commercial success in practice? David Burrows, freelance writer, investigates.

London produces about 200,000 tonnes of spent coffee grounds every year, the majority ending up in landfill. But what if all that could be turned into something useful? What if it could be used to power cars, heat homes or even your local coffee shop?

"The exploitation of waste is a hot topic," says Chris Chuck from the University of Bath's department of chemical engineering. "We've found some pretty interesting molecules in spent coffee grounds. It's not a massive waste stream in the grand scheme of things - globally there's about eight million tonnes to go at… but there's certainly potential."

In the UK there are some 18,832 coffee-selling outlets that shift about two billion cups of Joe a year, according to the Allegra 2015 Project Café report. By the end of the decade there could be 8,000 more outlets and that means even more waste.

Chuck and his team have been studying coffee waste intensely for the past few years. Last summer they published new research on the potential to turn spent coffee grounds (SCGs) into fuel.

Fertile grounds for oil opportunities

"We found the grounds contain up to 20% oil which can be extracted and converted into biodiesel," Chuck explains. He also found that it doesn't really matter what type of bean is used, where it's grown or how it's processed and brewed.

The research found that there was a "reasonably standard composition and little variation in the relevant physical properties of the fuels, irrespective of the source. This means that all waste coffee grounds are a viable feedstock for producing biodiesel."

Coffee waste produces a second-generation biofuel; this puts it on an environmental rung higher than the biofuels generated from crops, the ones NGOs say are muscling out food crops. At a European level, debate rages about the levels of crops like maize that should be part of the EU's 10% renewable target for renewable energy in transport with support growing for the inclusion of more second-generation fuels.

This all seems to make SCGs an excellent candidate for 'green' fuel. In fact, based on global production levels there's a 1.3 billion litre biodiesel industry in SCGs; that's comparable to used cooking oil (UCO), according to some research papers. And this means competition for this potentially valuable feedstock could be brewing.

"The first people to get their act together on this will make a lot of money," predicts Peter Freeman - a waste contractor turned coffee supplier who has been watching developments with interest.

Win-win

For the big coffee chains it could be a win-win: divert waste from landfill and they cut costs and gain green credentials. Entrepreneurs have also spied an opportunity.

"We run a waste collection service for spent coffee grounds from independent coffee shops and turn them into pellets that can be used in biomass boilers," explains Ben Becker at Beanergi, a company that creates a solid biofuel (pellet) from SCGs.

The business started with Becker racing around the Old Street area of London in a Zipcar snaffling any SCGs he could find.

"My housemate went mad as the waste piled up in our pristine white flat," he says. "There were 15 bins in the back garden and I used to dry it in the oven."

Having attracted some decent investment, trading is about to start for real but it's been an uphill struggle. "I was pulling my hair out and investors were biting their nails because we'd invested all this money in kit but we couldn't get a coffee pellet out," Becker explains. "The [pellet] machine isn't designed for coffee, it's designed for wood, [but] we've just had a breakthrough."

Soon Becker will be turning the waste from 70 cafés into pellets and selling them to the public and small businesses. Eventually he hopes they'll even end up back at the coffee shops. He wants to produce 50,000 tonnes of pellets, enough to power 1,750 coffee shops.

"If you can bring it back to the consumer - the coffee drinker - then you've got something," he says.

Pellets as well as biodiesel

He isn't the only green entrepreneur in town though. bio-bean is, according to its website, a "green energy company" that collects waste coffee grounds and "recycles them into advanced biofuels". It sounds simple but the patented technology is, apparently, not - the company produces pellets as well as biodiesel.

If the interviews given by co-founder Arthur Kay are anything to go by, there are big plans in place. Last year Kay said he was "working up contracts for most of the high street chains". Head of communications Daniel Crockett confirms that it's the big volumes of SCG the company is after. This makes sense given that decent tonnages of uniform feedstock significantly improve the chances of making the operation commercially viable.

However, it's unclear whether these have materialised - the partners page of the website is currently (mid-February) empty.

The firm is involved in a month-long trial with Network Rail to collect SCGs at some of London's biggest rail stations. A spokeswoman, taken by surprise that she had been told nothing about the scheme despite it being promoted on Facebook, confirms that further roll-out will be considered after the pilots.

In an interview, bio-bean's Crockett is reluctant to talk facts - shying away from the quantities collected, the volumes of biofuels created, and why this is apparently a better option than anaerobic digestion for SCGs.

Secrecy is nothing new in the resources sector, but it's always good to see data to back up the claims (the firm's brochure suggests turning London's SCGs into fuels will save almost 730,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases and 53,200 barrels of oil).

A logistical challenge

Some reports put the overall waste management savings at over 75%, with the waste producer saving in disposal costs (to the tune of £53.2m per year, again according to bio-bean's brochure). One of the big challenges, however, will be logistics. Carting around tonnages of damp waste isn't cheap, especially when it has to be done separately.

Commercially viable food waste collections from small businesses, as another case in point, have been a tough nut to crack.

Simply Waste Solutions, which provides one half of the recently launched Simply Cups scheme to collect and recycle paper cups, says the idea does have legs.

"Since our vehicles are already collecting cups, collecting small or large volumes of coffee grounds should in theory be cost neutral for most potential customers," suggests MD James Capel.

But oil content is not the only thing that makes SCGs a potentially attractive resource.

In Japan, Starbucks is fermenting SCGs and feeding them to dairy cows, while closer to home, in Brighton, SCGs provide the perfect compost for oyster mushrooms. Chuck at the University of Bath says lipids are in fact "the dullest part". It's the sterols in the grounds that have now piqued his curiosity. "They're a useful building block for steroid pharmaceuticals. We haven't done much research yet but there's potential there."


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