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Harnessing the Power of Coffee to Energize the Planet

A British startup is recycling waste coffee grounds into carbon-neutral fuels to power buildings, vehicles—and people!

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A barista in a trendy coffee shop slides a perfectly made cappuccino across the counter before turning back to slam the leftover coffee grounds into the knock box. It’s a familiar scene around the world. In the U.S. alone, more than 200 million cups of coffee are drunk every day, generating some 1.5 million tons of waste coffee grounds.

For London-based entrepreneur Arthur Kay, used coffee grounds are the opposite of waste—they are a valuable resource and an untapped reservoir of energy. The company he founded, bio-bean, is collaborating with coffee shops and coffee producers to transform their natural by-product into a range of advanced biofuels on an industrial scale.

This idea has been recognized by Shell’s #makethefuture campaign as an exciting and innovative way to harness and generate energy. Promoting the power of people’s ingenuity to answer the energy challenges of tomorrow, Shell awarded funding to bio-bean to help develop their business.

While an architecture student in London, Kay was challenged to design a coffee shop and factory. Working on his drafts, Kay found himself exploring better ways to dispose of waste coffee grounds that would otherwise go to landfills. Coffee grounds have a higher caloric content than wood; they thus burn hotter and longer than that widely used source of fuel. More importantly, they are carbon neutral.

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Compelled by this knowledge, Kay investigated how this energy could be extracted on an industrial scale. In 2013 he founded bio-bean, a company with a mission to create cleaner energy powered by coffee. A few years later, bio-bean is doing exactly that.

The process is relatively simple. Bags of waste coffee grounds are collected from factories, coffee shops, businesses, and transport hubs (whenever possible in collaboration with waste companies). The bags are shredded and sieved to separate out the grounds, which then are dried to extract as much water as possible. The powder is then compressed under high pressure to make biomass pellets and "Coffee Logs."

Bio-bean’s big idea already is making a difference by recycling thousands of tons of waste coffee grounds annually—and its Coffee Logs are proving popular for hearth fires and stove-cooking. In addition, recycling coffee grounds has the potential to save coffee shops and instant-coffee factories millions of dollars currently spent to dispose of the waste. Plus, every ton of coffee grounds that bio-bean's recycling keeps from landfills saves the carbon equivalent of planting 200 trees. Whether or not you're a coffee drinker, it's nice to know that a cappuccino could also help power the planet in a cleaner way.

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