The $8 Million Caffeine Jolt

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Biodiesel, a fuel derived directly from living matter, is a rapidly growing alternative to traditional diesel for powering automobiles. Popular sources of biodiesel include soy, palm and other vegetable oils. But coffee is rising in the ranks. Photo: Flickr/StephenMitchell

We may rely on it for our daily dose of caffeine, but coffee goes farther than fueling just our minds.

A study published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agriculture estimates that from the approximately 16 billion pounds of coffee grown each year, 340 millions gallons of biodiesel could be generated.

While that amount of biodiesel would only cover the needs of American consumers for about a day, the surprisingly cheap and easy process could potentially net an $8 million average profit in the United States alone.

A widely cited major barrier to the expansive use of biodiesel fuel is the lack of a low-cost, high-quality source to produce it. Coffee grounds, which would otherwise be considered waste, provide a cheap, abundant and eco-friendly option.

Spent grounds contain between 11 and 20 percent of oil by weight, numbers similar to coffee’s more common counterparts of soy and palm.

The conversion process begins with the coffee grounds being separated from the oil. Afterward, 100 percent of the oil collected can be inexpensively converted into stable biodiesel. Another marketable bonus is that the fuel even smells like coffee.

In addition, nothing needs to go to waste. The grounds left over post-conversion can be used to make ethanol or as compost.

In New York City, where an average household throws out more than 2 pounds of food waste per day, the Lower East Side Ecology Center will accept coffee grounds with or without a filter for composting.

Community participants drop off their kitchen scraps at strategic locations in Manhattan, where they are transported to and processed in an in-vessel composting system. After three months, the finished compost is ready to be sold.

“Coffee grounds are biodegradable, which means they are fully compostable,” says a spokesperson for the Center. “[Composting] is an important contribution towards reducing waste […] a lot of people drink coffee and we can also compost the filters they use. It’s certainly a very common material and we see it a lot.”

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