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It doesn’t take a keen observer to know that the coffee business is staggeringly profitable. Eighty-seven percent of Americans rely on coffee to get them through the day. Starbucks just opened its 16,680th store with another one slated to be built in Algeria. And the $11 billion-dollar coffee share of the US economy alone could support a few small countries.

So it comes as no surprise that the 400 million cups of coffee served every day in our country add substantially to the cumulative waste-stream that continues to grow, despite the efforts of three decades of municipal recycling programs. But beyond providing morning pick-me-ups for a majority of adults, scientists and entrepreneurs are discovering other coffee “perks.”

Coffee grounds have been used in composting activities and as soil conditioner for years. But it also has a lot in common with petroleum. According to the Professor’s House website, it is “the world’s second most traded commodity” behind oil. And both products supply energy to vehicles.

Wait. They do? Coffee’s new to the alternative fuel scene, but thanks to a coffee-guzzling University of Nevada-Reno professor who looked at the oily film on the top of his espresso and saw energy potential, it’s seriously being considered as a fuel additive. He and a team of engineering students processed the oil from discarded Starbucks grounds using transesterification, a chemical conversion of fats into biodiesel – with a 100% success rate.

Then they came up with an applicable real-world business plan to convince investors and the general public of the environmental and economic benefits of using coffee. For one thing, it is extremely cheap and abundant. The team estimated that every year, approximately 15 billion pounds of coffee is ingested the world over, leaving tons of wasted coffee grounds, which could translate into roughly 208 million gallons of biofuel. The students also found a way to package the leftover coffee grounds, post oil extraction, into dense “fuel pellets.” They claim that one pound of fuel pellets holds 8,700 BTUs.

Although coffee and other waste materials will never fully supplant petroleum on their own, this experiment shows that current technology has the ability to convert some garbage into energy, with the implication that someday, technology might be able to keep pace with worldwide trash production and turn what was once a burden into an environmentally friendly, energy supplying beast.

For more information on this topic, watch Coffee Cups To Go!

Earthgarage – Greener Car. Fatter Wallet.