Management / Coffee power: Get up and go with a new kind of biofuel

Coffee power: Get up and go with a new kind of biofuel

From small beginnings scribbled on the back of a napkin,  Arthur Kay’s biomass firm Bio-bean now turns 50,000 tonnes of coffee grounds per year into a fuel for cars, homes and appliances

When you think about the future of energy, technologies like wind and solar power probably come to mind – but it could be your morning cup of coffee that holds the answer and provides energy beyond your daily caffeine boost.

Bio-bean, a company that recycles waste coffee grounds into biofuels, was founded by CEO Arthur Kay, who came up with the idea when he was an architecture student investigating ways to make coffee shops and factories greener by design for a project.

“I was looking at how you could make it carbon neutral or even carbon positive, and looked at all the typical energy solutions – wind and solar, that sort of stuff,” he explains. “But then I really stumbled across the sheer volume of waste coffee grounds produced by coffee shops, and particularly by big coffee factories, as well.

“I discovered it has a very high calorific content – higher than wood, for example – and on top of that it’s got a lot of oil in it, too. And so I developed this technology, and eventually this company, to take oil out of the waste coffee grounds, and then use the residual biomass, and turn that into a range of different solid fuel products to generate heat and power, The oil’s used as a liquid transport fuel – an alternative to biodiesel – for powering planes, trains and automobiles.”

Bio-bean’s products range from these liquid transport fuels to biomass pellets for heating buildings and Coffee Logs, which can be used to fuel homes and appliances like stoves and barbecues. Kay says the firm’s main customers are businesses, which use Bio-bean’s fuels in environments including airports, office blocks and houses.

While there are alternative means of generating sustainable energy, Kay believes that Bio-bean’s fuels have a distinct advantage over others because they can be used with existing equipment, avoiding the “vast infrastructure costs” of solar power, for example.

“I think everyone agrees it would be fantastic to have everything powered by sunlight or whatever it happens to be, but the challenge is how you move from a predominantly fossil-based economy to a carbon-neutral or carbon-positive one,” he says.

“So our focus has really been from the outset to develop chemicals and fuels that can be used as a direct displacement of conventional fuels. So, for example, our biomass pellets can be used as a direct displacement for wood pellets or coal, our Coffee Logs can be used as a direct displacement for barbecue fuels and coal, and our biodiesel fuel can be used as a direct displacement for mineral diesel.

“And these aren’t just replacements or worse alternatives – the real benefit is that they’re more calorific and they’re cleaner-burning fuels, as well.”

Virgin Media Business #VOOM 2016 Live Finale at ITV Studios, London, Britain on 28 June 2016.

Although Bio-bean’s fuels have won acclaim and the company plans to extend its operations to process more coffee waste in future, Kay appreciates that waste coffee grounds will be just one source of cleaner energy in a changing world in years to come.

“The long-term effect is really about how you can then scale those visions,” he says. “It’s all very well doing these things at a small or medium scale, but our factory’s capacity is around 50,000 tonnes per year, and even if we build up our factory a hundred times over we’re still not going to eliminate fossil fuels.

“Over the next 40 years or so I think we’re going to have huge energy divergence in terms of a range of different solutions. It’s not going to be one-technology-fits-all. It’s around scaling what we have today, but also spreading our bets in terms of the range of technologies that will be used going forward. Sadly the world won’t be just powered by coffee!”

Bio-bean recently won the Grow category at Virgin Media’s Voom competition – impressing a panel of judges including Sir Richard Branson – and the future looks bright for the start-up with a vision of a world powered by coffee.

“We’ve gone from three years ago, literally me straight out of university with a back-of-the-napkin sketch from an architecture project, to now, operating the world’s first coffee waste recycling factory with 30 team members,” Kay says. “They can process about one in ten cups of coffee produced in the UK – so around seven million cups a day.

“The real thing for us is about how we can take that to the next level… We work with a lot of waste management companies and also coffee companies. We want to work with as many coffee waste producers as possible across the UK.”