Farm-level efficiency has a sticking point in the coffee industry for some time now. Already battling against razor thin margins (that are only getting thinner), folks have come up with inventive ways to utilize all aspects of the coffee growing process in hopes of making it a profitable venture. In the past years, cascara has gone from byproduct to ubiquitous cafe beverage, one farm began collecting and selling honey from bees who solely pollenated coffee blossoms, and working with Terroir Chocolate, some producers have planted cocoa trees at lower elevations to be used for single origin bean-to-bar chocolate that includes coffee from the same farm.
And according to The Guardian, UK scientists thinking beyond coffee have created a fuel cell that not only removes contaminants from wastewater, but creates electricity in the process.
Funded by the UK government and led by the University of Surrey systems microbiologist Dr. Claudio Avignone Rossa, researchers from the UK worked with Colombian counterparts to create a biome-based fuel cell to create energy from the waste in water used during “the washing of coffee seeds, or beans, and during the water-intensive process of making instant coffee.” While coffee has been used as a biofuel before, the article notes that this is the first time it has created electricity.
The hungry little microbe pooping out power was originally found in the “sludge from wastewater treatment plants;” it just so happens to also be readily available on Colombian farms. “Supply is not a problem,” Dr. Avignone Rossa tells The Guardian.
Dr. Avignone Rossa goes on to note that the amount of power the fuel cells can produce isn’t staggering, the effects it can have are not insignificant either:
You’re not going to light up London with these things, but you’re going to put a light where there was none.
The farmer will be getting a little bit of energy coming from the waste they are throwing away. So the environment will be cleaner. The finances of the farm will be improved.
The size of a soda can, the original lab versions fuel cell cost £300-£500 to produce—due mostly the materials used—but that cost can be cut to less than £2 by using “ceramics and disposable plastic boxes” instead.
The new fuel cell is a double whammy: it's eco-friendly and financially positive for producers, two big issues in the coffee world. And while their current electrical output is small, this is a pretty big first step toward easy and cheap access to power. It's not like electric cars started out getting over 300 miles on a single charge; it took time, research, and interested parties. This fuel cell may prove to be more than just a building block. It may be a cornerstone.