This research proposes a potential high-impact solution to environmental, social and economic challenges facing rural sectors.
Professor Lina María Agudelo-Escobar, Associate Professor, University of Antioquia
Working in partnership with the Newton Fund to support scientists working in Colombia turning coffee waste into electricity using a microbial fuel cell.
Coffee waste is a particular problem in Colombia, the world’s third largest coffee producer; where nearly all coffee is grown on small, family-owned farms. The farmers are unable to afford the large-scale water treatment systems needed to process the coffee waste, so it ends up in local water courses, which become contaminated. Scientists working on a Newton Fund project in Colombia have found that environmentally damaging coffee waste could be turned into electricity using a microbial fuel cell. Our work with the Newton Fund supports scientists to find solutions to support economic and environment sustainability.
The scientists were working on a Newton Fund project when they discovered that if they fed coffee waste to a community of microbes originally found in a wastewater treatment plant, the tiny creatures would eat it, producing energy. This energy could then be captured in the form of electricity.
The Newton Fund allows researchers to take their Newton projects to the next level, for example by translating their project from the lab into the field, through expansion and/or improvements to their original project, by bringing in more capacity or gaining higher profile; all increasing the likelihood of success.
The research team is now developing a small, inexpensive device suitable for use on Colombian farms. The initial aim is to initially implement it in the coffee-growing area of Southwest Antioquia, where they have already established good relationships with farmers.
By using microbial fuel cells to clean up their waste water and reusing it, Colombian coffee farmers could relieve a huge strain on their water supply. If their fuel cells are used successfully, the researchers hope to engage with large coffee companies in Europe to adopt the same approach to treating their waste. From the research, as well as offering an environmentally-friendly alternative to treat wastewater, the generation of electricity could boost social and economic development for Colombia’s farming communities.
In 2018, the project won the prestigious Newton Fund prize, recognising research work that promotes the economic development and social welfare of Newton partner countries. Professor Agudelo from the project was also awarded a Newton grant to further her research.
The uniqueness of the Newton Fund is the partnership between the UK and partner country at all levels from government to government, delivery partner to delivery partner and project lead to project lead. The fund demonstrates how bringing researchers together has enormous potential to change lives for the better across the world. Grants of this kind greatly support the exchange of expertise, research knowledge and establish local hubs for UK-partner country activities.
The partnership for this research project was made up of scientists from the University of Surrey and the University of Antioquia, Colombia.