John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The odd vehicle, which transforms old coffee grounds into hydrogen, recently set a Guinness land-speed record.
Is it time to start rooting around the compost pile for discarded coffee grounds? This waste substance is proving to be remarkably versatile, first as an odor-remover for sewers and now as a fuel for a souped-up British vehicle that recently set a record for fastest coffee-powered car.
The Coffee Car Mark 1 percolated into existence a couple years ago when a team of engineers hacked an old Volkswagen Scirocco to run on gasification, a century-old technology that converts carbon-containing substances into energy. The back of the auto is modified with what at first glance looks to be a moonshine still, complete with a charcoal stove stocked with pellets made from used coffee grounds. The heat from the stove causes the acrid material to break down and release hydrogen, which is routed through a cooling system and a filter that removes tar. The explosive gas eventually winds up powering pistons to move the car forward a significant distance – in 2010, the Coffee Car performed a history-making journey from London to Manchester.
Having proven coffee's worth as a fuel for long road trips, the engineers (who are led by a guy named, wonderfully, Bacon) next attempted to prove it could make a car zoom along as fast as a gasoline-powered ride. Thus the Coffee Car Mark 2 was born from the chassis of a Ford pick-up, looking like a Giant Peapod delivery truck with all the coffee-bean decals adorning its sides. When it's gearing up for operation, the Mark 2 smokes like a chimney – I assume that's normal – leaving a fluffy cloud of exhaust that probably smells nothing like fresh-brewed coffee. But it has done what its inventors asked of it, setting a new speed record last week of 65 mph at an airfield near Manchester.
Bacon's team is spending the coming weeks driving their coffee machine around the U.K. to promote Co-operative Food, a British fair-trade organization. The vehicle is said to travel about 55 miles on the power of a 22-pound sack of grounds, so no doubt the engineers will be wired to the gills trying to drink enough joe to keep their engine from dying. (I guess they could also just pick it up from the trash behind coffee shops, but that doesn't sound as fun.) As to why they're doing this, they say:
The reason behind doing a land speed record is to show how the old gasification technology renowned in its day for being rather slow although very useful in wartime Europe , can with modern engineering become something quite capable. Furthermore we get a caffeine kick producing energy from a waste product. Roll on Carpuccino.
Here's them achieving the speed record on February 19:
And for those who want to build their own coffee-burning vehicle, there's this making-of video:
Top photo courtesy of Coffee Car.