Energy Efficient Coffee Roasting

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8th of February 2017

When you hear the phrase “energy efficiency” you may think of electrical goods or home insulation, but you might not be aware that energy efficiency is also a major factor in modern coffee production and distribution. In our new series of articles, we are going to examine the energy efficiency of coffee, highlighting the pioneers who are trying to make your ‘cup of joe’ more environmentally friendly and more energy efficient. The first in this series of articles will focus on energy efficient coffee roasting.

Coffee gives us energy…but how much does it use?

To help answer that question, we are going to start by looking at how energy is expended in the production of everyone’s favourite morning pick-me-up.

In agriculture, practitioners look at the life cycle assessment (LCA) of their product. In the case of coffee, the LCA means: total energy; the carbon emissions, water use and waste produced over the life cycle of a cup. While studies point to transportation causing the single biggest expenditure of energy in the life cycle of coffee, coffee roasting is also highly energy intensive. Here’s why…

Each year, globally, a mind-boggling 6.7 billion kg of coffee beans are roasted. This roasting emits volatile organic compounds (or VOCs, which are organic chemicals with a high vapour pressure at ordinary room temperature and carbon monoxide). Traditionally, as part of the roasting process, these emissions have to be oxidised in large industrial afterburners. Roasting and afterburning uses vast quantities of fuel and produces massive emissions. This is, in part, because roasting machines operate at very high temperatures (approx 290°C) and consume around one million British Thermal Units (BTU) an hour— equivalent to running a 400 horsepower car solidly for a whole hour.

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As an aggregated total, the whole LCA of a single cup of coffee is around 1.94 megajoules (MJ), or about half a kilowatt hour, which, trust us, is a lot! Traditional drum roasters also emit airborne particulates (allergens) as well as the aforementioned VOCs and greenhouse gases, such as: carbon, methane and nitrous oxide, none of which are good for the environment.

So, what can be done to reduce the energy and emissions in coffee roasting? Thankfully, there are a number of ingenious new practitioners who are trying to make a positive change in their industry.

Smart Roasting

Over in Northern California, the team at Loring Smart Roast are manufacturing innovative, clean and efficient commercial coffee roasters. The company’s founder, Mark Loring Ludwig, discovered, in his time working for food processing company, Heat and Control, the problems with conventional roasters. The main issue, he discovered, is that these roasters waste a massive amount of energy and result in huge smoke emissions. In fact, in traditional coffee roasting, nearly 75% of heat input into the roasters leaves through the chimney. Then, there’s the fact that the emission of the pollutants generated by the process must be incinerated (by law, in most industrialized countries) before they can be vented into the environment. Mark Loring Ludwig saw an opportunity in this discovery. As he says:

“People put the idea in my mind, that if someone could invent a smokeless roaster, that could roast well without an afterburner, then they’d be set. With that in mind, I started toying around.”

Ludwig saw the potential of recovering this lost energy and these excess emissions and repurposing them. But how?

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In simple terms, Loring’s patented single-burner design roasts coffee beans while also incinerating the smoke using an innovative hybrid burner/cyclone system. This eliminates the need for an afterburner, instead of recirculating the hot air so it is used to maximum efficiency.

This result is not only inconsistency in the actual roasting, but also in lower emissions and reduced operating costs compared to conventional roasters. The removal of the afterburner, alone, reduces the fuel consumption by up to four times! Not only that, there’s an 80% reduction in natural gas usage. Pretty impressive results, right?

Loring isn’t the only coffee roasting company looking to help tackle the issue of energy wastage. In British Colombia, Canada, in the small town of Gibsons, Beachcomber Coffee is creating a more energy efficient blend of coffee. In fact, the packaging of Beachcomber Coffee actually outlines just how much more energy efficient their blend is than regular coffees. According to their research, roasting 1lb of coffee results in impressive results.

How? Well, like Loring, they have seen that using a more innovative design of coffee roaster is not only better for the environment, but that it can save them money in production costs. Beachcomber Coffee uses a unique proprietary roaster designed by Jim Townley of Fresh Cup Roastery. These Roastaire TM ‘clean-air’ coffee roaster produce near-zero emissions and offer massive energy reduction, when compared to traditional methods. As they proudly proclaim on their website:

“The RoastaireTM saves thousands of dollars per year in energy costs while protecting the environment along the way because its design is closed to the outside atmosphere 85% of the time.”

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The energy efficiency revolution

Many other coffee producers are now starting to look at energy efficiency as a crucial part of their coffee production. But how can you get involved in the sustainable coffee movement? If you produce coffee, consider investing in a more energy efficient and eco-friendly coffee roaster. Not only will it help save the environment, it’ll also save you money in the long run.

Don’t produce your own coffee? No problem, our next article in the series is going to be about the most energy efficient coffee machine on the market!

In conclusion

While coffee roasting does expend a massive amount of energy, there is a growing movement within the industry which is focused on inventing revolutionary new ways of reducing this energy waste. This will not only help make the production of coffee more energy efficient, but, as a consequent, also more cost-effective. Sounds like good news to us!

Pics by Clint Mckoy, Gerónimo López, Beachcomber Coffee