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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for the U.S.-based Divergente LLC consulting firm with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Is This The Ultimate Fuel For Millennials?

Imagine sipping your soy latte or iced caramel macchiato during your daily commute in a bus that emits not noxious gases, but a fresh coffee aroma. Now imagine that the coffee grounds used to make your macchiato are being repurposed and are actually powering that bus. Is this really possible?

There have been reports this week that one British startup has all but done it: bio-bean is fueling London double-deckers with coffee. Great news, right?        

The news is certainly good for anyone following renewables. At the same time, the notion that “buses will run on coffee” is obviously wrong. What bio-bean, the startup, is doing is making a new sort of biodiesel that involves a certain amount of coffee oil.

The startup company led by Arthur Kay three years ago won a $530,360 (400,000-pound) European environmental prize to commercialize its patented coffee grounds processing technology and signed up a number of coffee shop chains and instant coffee makers to supply it with their coffee grounds waste. So far, the company has produced 6,000 liters of coffee oil from the grounds, even though initial plans were to process 40 percent of London’s daily coffee waste by 2015.

Related: Europe’s Toxic Radiation Cloud Remains A Mystery

This amount of coffee oil, according to Shell, which is partnering with bio-bean on the project, is enough to power a bus for a year. Impressive as this sounds, it’s not just coffee oil that a bus would run on. The oil is actually only a part of a mixture that also contains other fats and oils. The mixture—called B20—is mixed with Shell diesel before being fed into buses.

What’s more impressive is that there is enough coffee waste produced every day in London to allow bio-bean to produce B20 from coffee oil only, instead of mixing it with other oils and fats. Of course, it would still need to be mixed with fossil fuel diesel to make it usable, but any energy from waste initiative deserves respect. According to Shell, the potential coffee oil production from grounds would be sufficient to fuel a third of the UK capital’s bus network.

The bio-bean processing factory has the capacity to process 50,000 tons of coffee grounds annually. Bio-bean’s founder, Kay, says he has estimated that if the waste from all the 200,000 tons of coffee drank every day in London is converted into oil to be used in biofuel, it would save emissions that would be equivalent to driving a bus 7,675 times around the world. These figures, however, are pretty abstract.

One can’t fail to notice that Shell and the news outlets that carried the story about the coffee-fueled buses, including the BBC, the New York Times, and CBS, don’t discuss emissions. There is no point of discussing them really: there will be emissions, because as cool as biodiesel is—it can be made from pretty much any organic waste—it does not eliminate all emissions. It can’t, after all; it needs to be mixed with mineral diesel to work, and the mineral diesel is always a more significant portion than the biodiesel in the final fuel. Related: Can The Gas Glut Kill The Permian Boom?

Another thing not mentioned in such optimistic announcements is that the process of converting waste to biodiesel typically produces a byproduct that until recently was expensive to dispose of in the absence of any viable good use for it. The presence of waste compromises biodiesel’s reputation as a totally clean source of energy. But recently, scientists from an Indian institute said they had found a way to make crude glycerol useful.

Using a bacterium, the researchers from the New Delhi Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology were able to produce hydrogen gas fuel. A liter of glycerol was turned into 3.2 liters of hydrogen gas.

Evidently, there is a way around anything, including biodiesel byproducts, but the long-term viability of the new biodiesel source that is being fed into selected London buses is questionable. After all, the London authorities have set a deadline to make the whole transport network of the city emission-free by 2050.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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