Strong coffee is sometimes referred to as “rocket fuel,” but London-based startup Biobean uses spent coffee grounds to make a much more literal type of fuel: the kind that powers stoves, fires, and even industrial furnaces.
Biobean was started in 2013 by Arthur Kay, an architecture student who realized that even when a coffee shop is sustainably designed, it still generates huge volumes of waste in the form of coffee grounds. But because they’re usually still hot when they hit the trash and add weight quickly, baristas typically empty coffee grounds into a separate container. That, as Kay noticed, makes it easy to collect out of the waste stream for reuse.
Biobean works with waste management companies throughout the UK to collect used coffee grounds from over 1,500 small coffee shops, chains, and office blocks. After collection, drivers deliver the coffee grounds to Cambridgeshire, where Biobean has established the world’s first coffee-recycling factory. After cleaning and drying the coffee grounds (which are about 60 percent moisture when they come in, Henderson said), workers mix them with sawdust, compact them, and coat them with wax to create 100 percent carbon-neutral biofuel.
The fuel comes in two formats: the first are logs (or briquettes), about the size of a soda can, are a consumer product meant for fireplaces, stoves, or furnaces (kind of like Duraflame logs but with coffee grounds). They’re available for purchase pretty widely throughout the UK: via Amazon, through grocery e-commerce retailer Ocado, and also available in various garden centers. They cost roughly £6.99 ($9.50) for a bag of 16.
The other product is a biomass pellet, which is intended for B2B sales. These pellets are used on an industrial level to heat buildings.
According to their website, Biobean’s coffee fuel burns 20 percent hotter longer than wood (at least according to tests they’ve run themselves) because of coffee’s natural oils. And no, it doesn’t smell like coffee when you burn it — which is actually kind of a bummer, in my coffee-loving opinion.
Biobean is exploring other ways they can make use of coffee grounds beyond biofuel. They have a team of research scientists working to transform oils from the grounds into a commercial-grade product that could be used in cosmetics or foodservice. (It’s still in the R&D stages.) Last November Biobean also partnered with Shell to develop a diesel fuel made in part with coffee grounds.
In 2016 the company first began producing their briquettes, and today their roughly 30-person team is working to expand production of their coffee ground fuel and figure out new ways to use those ground-up beans.
Biobean isn’t the only company trying to reduce coffee-related waste. In fact, Biobean isn’t even the only company repurposing spent coffee grounds — I’ve seen companies repurpose grounds as body scrubs or turn them into compost — but they’re doing on a much larger scale. In 2017, they converted the waste from 28 million cups of coffee into biofuel. Which puts the amount of coffee grounds destined for a landfill in perspective.
By taking such a huge waste product and turning it into something that displaces — at least a little bit — environmentally unfriendly fuel sources like coal, Biobean’s concept is a slam dunk. I for one hope they make it to the U.S. so that my future lattés can find a second life as a biofuel heating someone’s home.