How do you make biofuel from coffee?

If you look at the top of a cup of coffee that has been left for a while, you'll see this thin layer - a very slight sheen on top. That's essentially natural oils within coffee that are being released. It is that oil that we are using to help make biofuel.

In the UK we drink an estimated 55 million cups of coffee a day1. By our calculations that produces more than 500,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds each year. Much of this would otherwise end up at landfill sites.

At bio-bean we work with waste collection companies to collect those used grounds from factories, local cafes, busy train stations, offices and chains like Costa Coffee.

It’s important to us to use existing waste collection and recycling companies because that minimises the number of extra journeys needed. It makes financial sense for companies too, because as well as being environmentally-friendly, it saves them money as it is cheaper than sending the waste grounds to landfill.

Once the grounds arrive at our purpose-built coffee recycling factory the magic begins. The grounds are sifted and dried before a process of evaporation extracts the coffee oil from the grounds.

We managed to produce 6,000 litres of coffee oil. This was used for an ambitious biodiesel project we undertook in 2017 with Shell.

It worked like this. Our partner, Argent Energy used our coffee oil to create a B20 biofuel. B20 means that there are 20% biocomponents - like fats, oils and agricultural products, including our coffee oil. That is mixed with diesel before being added to the London bus fuel supply chain. Which means our coffee oil was used in a select number of regular red buses driving around London.

Bio-bean extracted 6,000 litres of coffee oil from waste coffee grounds, which was used to help power some of London's buses.

London bus crossing Westminster Bridge in front of the Houses of Parliament
Bio-bean have extracted 6,000 litres of coffee oil from waste coffee grounds, which was used to help power some of London's buses

How did it feel to see London buses running on a biofuel you helped to create?

I was thrilled and proud. A huge amount of research, engineering and business development went into this project.

It's now almost five years since I first talked about the idea of creating a biofuel from coffee. Back then, Shell supported me through its LiveWIRE programme. There were just two people on the team then. Now there are nearly 50 of us at bio-bean, and this time around, Shell’s #makethefuture initiative is behind us, through its work supporting energy-engaged entrepreneurs and businesses.

It has been a long process, but an exciting time scaling-up the technology and expanding the business as well as the team.

We demonstrated that we can get to the point where coffee oil can be used in a biodiesel. That was a special moment for bio-bean and for me. It shows that it's technically-feasible, economically-viable and that it can have a positive environmental impact.

It's all very well scientists and engineers coming up with this idea in the laboratory, but through the London bus network, and with partners like Shell and Argent Energy we demonstrated how it can work in reality.

The next challenge is to scale-up from a technical demonstration. We think we have the opportunity to take this forward on a larger scale.

There is going to have to be a real divergence of energies in transport. Electrification will of course be a big part in that, but liquid fuels will too, and it’s important that we find ways of reducing the CO2 emissions of those fuels.

When did you first think of the idea?

I was still a student studying architecture in 2013 when the idea came to me. I was on a project designing a coffee shop of the future. All the other students were doing lovely drawings of the building itself and the cladding and those sorts of things, but I got very interested in the sheer volume of waste coffee that was coming from the building.

The thing about coffee is that you drink from the cup and there's virtually no waste in the bottom when you finish. I'd never really thought about the waste that is produced.

It's different to if you eat a banana, and you throw the skin away, you realise there is waste because you actively throw it away.

With coffee, the waste is basically invisible because the coffee shop or factory deal with the waste. Even if you have a cup of instant coffee, you don't necessarily think about the waste that has been produced to get the coffee in your cup.

Other than biofuel, what else is bio-bean producing from coffee?

The first vision I had for the company was to turn waste coffee grounds into biodiesel. This was always our dream, which is why this development is so special. To get there we have produced a variety of other products, including biomass pellets and biomass briquettes - what we call Coffee Logs.

The Coffee Logs have been great at demonstrating the full circle. People drink the coffee, we collect their waste coffee grounds and then provide them back with the logs that they can use to heat their homes. So far, it is the Coffee Logs that our business is built on.

The biodiesel is more of a technical demonstration of what can be done in the future.

What does the future look like for bio-bean?

At the moment, we are focusing on collecting even more waste coffee grounds, building a larger market for our Coffee Logs as well as exploring other potential uses for coffee oil.Initially, we want to expand our operations across the UK. Then we would like to look overseas to Europe and to the USA.

However, it's not just about expanding bio-bean internationally. Ultimately, we want to get the world to think differently about waste. By promoting valuable uses of waste coffee, we hope to encourage others to reconsider what could be achieved with substances we currently consider “waste”.

Arthur Kay spoke to Andrew Wilson


1 Source: British Coffee Association (2017).

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