Sophia He

Is your coffee environmentally friendly?

Researchers at Dal’s Faculty of Agriculture working to create environmentally-friendly K-Cups

By: Michelle Thompson

Keurig’s have become one of the most popular coffee makers in Canada. It’s very easy to grab a K-Cup in the morning, make a single cup of coffee and head out the door. However, K-Cups have not been as convenient for the environment.

Sophia He, a Chemical Engineer at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture is working to develop a solution to the non-recyclable K-Cups while making your morning coffee more environmentally friendly.

“We are using technology to crush the K-Cup and liquefy it into bio-crude oil,” explains Sophia. “Our goal in the end is to convert this waste stream into something useful and reduce the burden on our landfills.”

In partnership with the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture, Sophia began her research on K-Cups by collecting spent coffee grounds from Tim Hortons. “We extract the oil from these spent coffee grounds because about 15 per cent of the grounds contain an oil similar to vegetable oil,” she explains. “If you can separate this 15 per cent you can convert this oil into bio-diesel,” she explained.

According to her research, Keurig Green Mountain produced 8.3 billion K-Cups in 2013 increasing to 9.8 billion in 2014, generating 162 thousand tonnes of spent K-Cups waste. There is an urgent need to identify alternative ways to recycle these plastic coffee pods and address the environmental concern caused by this emerging waste stream.

“I perform a process I call hydrothermal liquefaction,” explained Sophia.  “Basically, it’s like a pressure cooker. It applies high temperature and high pressure and can convert all kinds of organic waste, such as manure and spent coffee grounds, into crude bio-oil. This crude bio-oil is very similar to petroleum crude-oil but you cannot use it directly, it has to be upgraded to gasoline or diesel.”

Sophia soon discovered she could put her knowledge of spent coffee grounds into working on K-Cups. Everything inside the K-Cup is biodegradable, it is only the external plastic that is not.  This generates a lot of problems as the K-Cups are disposed of as whole units into landfills.

To date, at lab scale, Sophia and her team have been able to convert 60 per cent of the K-Cup into crude bio-oil on a mass basis.

Sophia joined the Department of Engineering at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture in 2013. Originally from China, she moved to Canada and received her PhD from Western University, London, Ontario in 2010.  She believes her family influenced her significantly on her chosen career path.

“Both of my parents were college instructors, the university setting makes me feel comfortable,” she said. “What I like most about being an engineer is that I can see the immediate benefits of the application of my knowledge.”

Sophia will continue to focus on converting bio-waste into value added bio-product and biofuels, reducing the reliance on petroleum and eliminating the negative impact on the environment.

Engineering at Dalhousie's Faculty of Agriculture

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