WINNIPEG (CUP) — David Levin and Richard Sparling have been collecting Tim Hortons cups for more than just what’s under the rim — they’re converting the cups into biofuel.
The two University of Manitoba professors are looking for bacteria that can eat cellulose chains directly, breaking them into smaller sugars and eventually into hydrogen or ethanol.
Because the research focuses not only on how the metabolism of the bacteria works, but also on what the bacteria should be fed, coffee cups became a viable option to try. Prior to using the Tim’s cups, Levin and Sparling used hemp and flax, easily available in Manitoba.
“But it occurred to me one day as I was passing by Tim Hortons… that this would be a perfect substrate for our bacteria to eat,” said Levin, an associate professor of biosystems engineering. “Plus, (you) can’t recycle them.”
He does not know how many cups are sold daily on the University of Manitoba campus, “but I bet it’s a lot.”
Sparling, an associate professor of microbiology, said the idea started by just buying a coffee and rolling up the rims.
Then, he said, “Instead of throwing our Tim Hortons cup, we actually put it in a medium… and then asked, ”˜Will it degrade?’ ”
Sparling said the two were originally unsure whether the cups would break down because of the colours used to dye them, as well as the plasticized liners that prevent the cups from leaking.
But, he said, “it worked quite well.”
The two researchers looked into using both Tim Hortons and Starbucks cups. However, it appears the bacteria works on the Tim Hortons cups more effectively.
“There’s something in the Starbucks cup that’s more inhibitory, and that’s one of the things we want to find out,” said Levin. “What is the difference between the cups, and what’s the best way to process them and what can we make out of them?”
The bacteria did degrade the Starbucks cups, but they worked more effectively with those from Tim Hortons.
“I think it has nothing to say about Tim Hortons or Starbucks, as opposed to different companies will be using different suppliers,” said Sparling. “What it tells us is strictly regarding our bacterium. I would not infer one (cup) is more biodegradable than the other.”
Sparling was surprised that the Tim Hortons cups are not recyclable and said their research “is a way of recycling, in the sense that we are taking a product that is of low value and it is converted into a product that we hope is of value, meaning biofuel.”
The researchers said the Tim Hortons headquarters in Oakville, Ont. have contacted them, saying they heard about the project and were very interested in helping support it. In the coming weeks, they hope to discuss with the company what the next steps will be.
Currently, Levin and Sparling are doing small scale testing on a lab bench but they hope to scale up to a bioreactor in the coming month.
“As we scale up into the higher concentration,” said Levin, “we’ll be able to get a good idea of actually how much… fuel we can make.
“Then we could do that calculation and say that ”˜OK, if we took all the cups sold in Canada in a year and put them into bioreactors, we might make enough ethanol…to run your car for a year,’ or something like that. We can’t do that yet, but that’s the kind of thing we want to get to,” he continued.
Sparling said that this research could be one of many ways to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.
“I don’t think that we would be able to replace the Alberta oil wells with Tim Hortons cups,” he said, but “recycling and biofuel productions from Tim Hortons cups would… hopefully capture imagination.”
Newspapers are another everyday waste product that could potentially converted.
“Imagine if every household were to make sure that their newspaper or other products were also converted to biofuels.”