Coffee Grounds Give Jolt to Crippled Japanese Energy Grid

That daily cup of coffee is giving one of Japan's large thermal power plants an eco-friendly jolt. Sumitomo Metal Industries says it has begun using coffee grounds as biomass fuel to power its Kashima Steel Works plant in Japan, a first for a large power generating facility in the country.

Sumitomo Metal says biomass fuel generated from coffee grounds currently only amounts to 1 percent of the total amount of fuel used at the plant, but it hopes to gradually increase that number. The company plans to buy 12,000 tons of coffee grounds in the first year of the project.

"Our primary source of fuel is coal, but with increasing concerns about the environment, we wanted to find an alternative source of energy," spokesman Kayo Kikuchi said. "One of our employees suggested coffee, so we decided to look into it."

Coffee grounds are mixed with coal, to produce 470 megawatts of electricity at Kashima, enough to power about 400,000 homes. While coal makes up 99 percent of that mixture, Kikuchi said the plant would significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide gas emitted, by adding Java to the mix. Sumitomo Metal estimates it will slash carbon dioxide emissions by 7,000 tons this year, about the same amount generated by 1,500 homes annually.

"It's a small step, but it's a significant step," Kikuchi said.

Japan's Crippled Energy Grid Gets Jolt From Coffee Grounds

Thermal power plants have become increasingly important to Japan's energy supply in light of problems at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami damaged cooling systems at three of Fukushima's reactors, and triggered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The accident prompted a review of the country's nuclear energy policy, and led to safety checks at 54 of Japan's reactors. Three months after the Fukushima disaster, 75 percent of the nuclear plants remain idle, creating a massive power shortage.

Sumitomo Metal sells electricity generated to Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric, and the company is expected to help with the nationwide power shortage this summer.

Kikuchi says the company has already secured coffee grounds from several large beverage companies, including Coca-Cola.

Using coffee to generate fuel isn't a new concept. In 2008, researchers at the University of Nevada made headlines when they extracted oil from coffee and converted it to biodiesel. Professors there purchased their coffee grounds from local Starbucks stores, and estimated biodiesel could be produced for about a dollar a gallon. In a report published in The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, the team wrote that coffee's high antioxidant content, made java-based fuel more "stable over a long period of time" compared with traditional biodiesel.