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The sweet aroma of coffee wafting in the air

May 1, 2009
By Brian Martell


When Rudolf Diesel invented his new internal combustion engine over 100 years ago, he really wanted to show off its capacity to burn almost anything.

When Rudolf Diesel invented his new internal combustion engine over 100 years ago, he really wanted to show off its capacity to burn almost anything.

In his demonstrations, he underlined this by burning pure peanut oil, which must have had a unique exhaust smell. In the early years of internal combustion engines, the criteria were not based on environmental concerns, but rather on what was the most economical ways and means of producing fuel.

Rockefeller was busy building an empire based on kerosene (which is almost the same as diesel fuel) and with his incredibly efficient company producing lighting oil at lower and lower cost for the masses, this form of fuel won out.


Fast forward to the 21st century; fossil fuels are out, biofuels are in. Progress is no longer measured solely in output, but by how small an environmental footprint you leave, and anything that hints at “sustainability” has the inside track.

Apparently coffee oil has risen to the top of the refraction tower when it comes to the best biofuel for diesel motors. The remaining 15 per cent of oils left in the spent coffee grounds after brewing can be extracted for use as a biofuel.

Now I know some of you are thinking “yeah, right, April Fool’s Day has come and gone, enough already,” but I kid you not, this is actually something that is being explored by researchers who are looking for alternative energy supplies.

Researchers at the University of Nevada have produced biodiesel using methanol and potassium hydroxide as a catalyst to convert 100 per cent of the remaining oils into the fuel, which will remain stable as a fuel for about one month, enough for commercial applications.

The trick, of course, is to find a steady and reliable source of spent grounds that lend themselves to the logistics of collection for central processing. Volume available will not be a problem.

Our beloved beverage still ranks number 2 world wide as the most consumed liquid after water. So let’s look at the numbers to see if this could actually work.

If we assume that 50 per cent of all coffee consumed worldwide could be converted into biofuel (this is a really outlandishly high estimate, but humour me for a bit) then we would be looking at 5,544,000,000 pounds of spent coffee yielding about 831,600,000 pounds of biofuel, or about 415 million litres.

Worldwide demand for diesel is 718 billion litres, so coffee biofuel would represent about .05 per cent of that astronomical amount. 

Would it be worth it for only that much?

That would depend on the cost of processing.

According to the magazine The Economist, coffee biodiesel processed in a medium-sized facility would cost about $0.27 US per litre to produce, net of transport in, transport out and the perfunctory taxes that every government will surely levee on the product if it comes to fruition. But even at that price, it is close to the cost of refining crude into diesel under current conditions.

It also presupposes that the cost of the spent coffee grounds will be a free input, which is likely in the beginning, but will wane if it becomes more prevalent. If the cost of crude starts taking the escalator up, however, coffee biodiesel could become an industry unto itself with an economic advantage that will be critical to its success.
As an industry that deals in coffee, vending and OCS could also be part of the logistics of getting the spent coffee grounds to the processing plants, perhaps even having delivery vehicles run on coffee biodiesel.

And perhaps one of the best benefits of all, instead of our downtown city streets smelling like a refinery, they would have the sweet aroma of coffee wafting in the air.

Questions or comments? Visit Brian at .

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