Feb 16, 2018 - 4min read
How many coffees have you had since you woke up this morning? As a nation, the UK drinks 55 million cups of coffee every day, and produces half a million tonnes of coffee waste each year. A company called bio-bean has found an ingenious way of turning this mountain of organic waste into clean energy - energy that can be used to heat homes, or even power vehicles.
The story of bio-bean begins with founder Arthur Kay as an architecture student at UCL; tasked with designing a sustainable coffee shop, he realised that a huge amount of the waste coffee grounds the UK produces ends up in landfill, where its breakdown releases methane - a greenhouse gas 28 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. With no sign of the UK’s love affair with coffee abating, Arthur set about researching the potential for reusing coffee grounds as a fuel.
“He discovered that coffee is inherently highly calorific and has a high oil content,” explains bio-bean CCO George May, “which means it is an ideal feedstock to make biofuels. They’re an excellent sustainable fuel because they actually burn hotter than wood and other fuels while helping reduce overall emissions.”
“Four years later bio-bean has grown to a team of about 40,” says George, “and built the world’s first coffee recycling factory in Cambridgeshire. It contains specially modified equipment and technology for processing coffee waste - the coffee grounds that are delivered to our factory are about 50% moisture, so they need to go through a series of processes to ensure they are decontaminated and dried.”
bio-bean’s first product was carbon neutral biomass pellets made from recycled coffee grounds, used for heating buildings warmed by a biomass boiler. Last year they launched Coffee Logs too - highly efficient eco briquettes for domestic use in fireplaces, wood-burning stoves and chimineas. Both products - as well as burning hotter - have the added benefit of reducing emissions by displacing fossil fuels.
“Once you start looking at waste as a resource, you realise it has huge potential in the sustainable energy mix of the future,” says George. “To that end, we’re working hard to really scale up production of our two solid biomass products, while exploring how coffee oil can potentially replace environmentally harmful oils and chemicals.”
bio-bean has continued to innovate through its dedication to research and development, pushing towards finding applications for coffee oil in the fields of flavouring, fragrances and cosmetics. But perhaps the biggest breakthrough has come as a result of bio-bean’s extensive research into the commercial possibilities of biodiesel made from waste grounds.
“The project to power some of London’s bus network with coffee-derived biodiesel was part of Shell’s Make the Future programme, which supports clean energy startups,” says George. “Meanwhile, Costa Coffee is a key partner of bio-bean, providing us with a significant portion of the coffee waste that we use to create biofuels, so it seemed natural to involve them in promoting the project. Costa gave away free coffees on the morning of the launch and also provided customised coffee cup sleeves that reflected the biodiesel story.”
“We are partnered with a number of waste management firms who carry out coffee collections on our behalf,” says George. “The waste is aggregated at a site outside London, and then hauled in bulk to our factory in Cambridgeshire. Once processed, oil can be extracted from the dry, clean coffee grounds. For the Shell project, we extracted 6,000 litres of oil from coffee waste, and - in collaboration with Argent Energy - converted this oil into biodiesel. The biodiesel was then fed into the London bus network and used to fuel the capital’s buses.”
Every aspect of the bio-bean ecosystem is geared towards sustainability. By using a variety of waste management partners to make collections from businesses of all sizes - from independent cafes to major chains - bio-bean minimises waste mileage by using the existing infrastructure to organise the most efficient waste collection routes. It doesn’t end there; bio-bean is committed to continual improvement.
“We’re planning major upgrades to the factory in 2018,” says George. “The plan is to make the company even more sustainable and reduce our carbon emissions by over 50% - so we’re really excited about these developments.” It’s a corporate mentality borne out of its employees’ genuine passion for clean, sustainable energy.
“I have a deep-rooted belief that greater sustainability is needed across the board given today’s consumer-led society, where everything is treated as temporary or disposable,” says George. “I’m particularly interested in the progression of energy storage technology and its role in balancing the grid together with more established renewable energy sources such as solar and wind – there is certainly lots to come on this front and it can’t happen soon enough.”