Coffee, whisky and sugar are no longer just fuelling our bodies – they’re fuelling the world

When we need an instant boost we all know coffee, sugar and whisky (depending on the time of day, of course) are what the body orders. However, did you know they are also powerful biofuels, potent enough to fuel cars and potentially even planes?

Henry Ford did. His 1908 Model T Ford ran on ethanol, created as a by-product of agricultural farming, as well as petrol. Ford’s vision was for a circular economy and he believed that biofuels were the “fuel of the future”.

It turns out he was right. One hundred years later and this is where we are at…

Coffee

About three years ago, 23-year-old architecture student Arthur Kay also recognised the potential of used coffee grounds as a fuel resource while working on a coffee shop project.

In an inspiring story of entrepreneurship, he finished his studies and founded Bio-Bean, which now recycles one in 10 cups of coffee drunk in the UK – or 50,000 tonnes of waste coffee – at its Cambridgeshire production plant.

The process basically involves sieving, drying and compressing the wet coffee grounds into carbon-neutral solid biofuels that are capable of heating small homes and huge hospitals.

In another process that is still being developed, the scientists are extracting oil from the coffee grounds to create biochemicals for industry, and biodiesel, which has the potential to fuel cars and buses.

Whisky

Whisky is also a coming-soon fuel resource. A mammoth two billion bottles of whisky are created in Scotland each year. However, whisky is only 10 per cent of the production process – meaning there’s over two million tonnes of by-product waste.

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Celtic Renewables: turning whisky in fuel

For the past 10 years Celtic Renewables have been perfecting the process of turning this waste into the biofuel that can be blended with petrol for use in cars to help lower carbon emissions. It can also be converted into ethanol, which is used to create plastics. Plus, the left over solid material can then be used for animal feed.

Sugar

Globally, the biggest biofuel potential comes from the by-products of crops such as straw and sugarcane, according to Professor Paul Dupree from the University of Cambridge.

In Brazil, about 40 per cent of vehicles are already powered by the juice from sugar cane that has been converted into fuel rather than edible sugar.

But once the juice has been squeezed out of the cane, the remaining fibre – ‘bagasse’ – can also be converted into fuel in a process that extracts the sugars from food and converts it to ethanol. This increases each crop’s biofuel potential by around 50 per cent.

SugarcaneMalawi
Sugarcane fields, Malawi

Creating biofuels from the residues of farming is said to reduce CO2 output between 50-80 per cent compared with petrol.

With the technology largely developed already, the barriers of taking this to scale are now financial, rather than technical.  The drop in oil prices creates little motivation for consumers to switch to more eco-friendly, but more expensive, biofuels and therefore little incentive for bioenergy companies to invest in processing plants that cost hundreds of millions of pounds to build.

Food for thought: the issues
Growing crops especially for bioenergy is a contentious issue, because it’s hard to justify using food for fuel when there are still hundreds of millions of starving people in the world. Plus there are environmental issues because of the extra emissions created through land clearance and cultivation.

However, using food by-products makes good sense. “There is the potential for extra income for farmers; in Africa, for example, the bagasse is mostly just left to rot,” says professor Dupree. “These developments could also make it viable to farm a crop by selling both the residue and the food component in places it might not be beneficial just to farm and just sell the grain for food.”

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