U of M researchers look to convert Tim Hortons cups into biofuel

University of Manitoba professors Dr. David Levin and Dr. Richard Sparling have been collecting Tim Hortons cups on campus in order to further their research to convert the cups into biofuel — such as ethanol or hydrogen — using bacteria that eat cellulose.

Dr. Levin, associate professor of biosystems engineering, said, “What we do is use bacteria that can eat the cellulose chains directly. They break down the cellulose chains into smaller chunks of sugars and they basically digest those, and, in the process of doing that, they can make ethanol and hydrogen.”

Their research focuses not only on how the metabolism of the bacteria works, but also on what the bacteria should be fed. Levin said that prior to using the coffee cups they were working with hemp and flax, which he said are abundant 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. Plus, [you] can’t recycle them. [ . . . ] I haven’t found out how many are sold on campus, but I bet it’s a lot,” said Levin.

Dr. Sparling, associate professor of microbiology said, “Initially, we did like most Tim Hortons fans would do, [which] is buy our coffee [and] roll our rims. [But] instead of throwing our Tim Hortons cup we actually put it in a medium [ . . . ] and then asked, ‘Will it degrade?”

Sparling said that the two were originally unsure whether the cups would break down due to the colours used to dye them as well as the plasticized liners that prevent the cups from leaking.
“But [ . . . ] it worked quite well,” he said.

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.

Levin said, “There’s something in the Starbucks cup that’s more inhibitory and that’s one of the things we want to find out. What is the difference between the cups, and what’s the best way to process them and what can we make out of them?”

According to Sparling, this didn’t mean that there wasn’t any degradation of the Starbucks cups, but that the process was notably slower.

“I think it has nothing to say about Tim Hortons or Starbucks, as opposed to different companies will be using different suppliers. What it tells us is strictly regarding our bacterium. I would not infer one 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.”

Last week, Tim Hortons headquarters in Toronto contacted them saying they heard about the project and were very interested in helping support the project. In the coming weeks they will be discussing 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 to the higher concentration, [ . . . ] we’ll be able to get a good idea of actually how much [ . . . ] fuel we can make,” said Levin.

“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,” said Levin.

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, but [ . . . ] recycling and biofuel productions from Tim Hortons cups would [ . . . ] hopefully capture imagination,” said Sparling.

“Imagine if every household were to make sure that their newspaper or other products were also converted to biofuels.”