High tech is key to reducing coffee roasting’s carbon footprint

Bühler has committed to having solutions ready to multiply by 2025 that reduce energy, waste, and water by 50 percent in the value chains of its customers. Image: Bühler

As coffee roasters strive to become more sustainable, they continually look for ways to reduce carbon emissions during roasting and improve energy efficiency. A key step in this process is utilising more sustainable roasting machines, and the manufacturers are meeting this demand by providing roasting machines with cutting-edge technology. By Vladislav Vorotnikov.

Coffee roasters are increasingly exploring ways to make their business climate positive, turning to advanced roasting machines to lower carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency. Roasting machine manufacturers, in turn, are putting ample effort into developing sophisticated solutions to meet their customers’ expectations.

On average, it is estimated that roasting contributes to around 15 percent of the overall footprint of coffee’s journey from field to cup. Making the roasting business more sustainable, among other things, helps the environment and helps companies to capitalise on responsible consumption trends.

A recent study by the United States think tank First Insight showed that a lion’s share of Gen Z shoppers prefers to buy sustainable brands, and they are most willing to spend 10 percent more on sustainable products. The report also found that Gen Z, along with millennials, are the most likely to make purchase decisions based on values and principles, including environmental.

In light of this, the leading coffee companies rolled out sustainability initiatives, looking to lower the carbon footprint throughout the supply chain to the maximum possible extent, including in the roasting segment.

Illycaffè has embarked on a decarbonisation roadmap which consists of actions along all the value chain: from green coffee to finished products, taking into account all the different steps, including transportation, packaging, distribution and use of coffee machines, said David Brussa, chief total quality and sustainability officer of illycaffè. The eventual goal is to reduce the carbon footprint to reach carbon neutrality by 2033 as a company.

“We strongly think that we need to act quickly to avoid impactful problems for the next generations—a climate disaster. As we often hear, the non-return point is very close to being reached, and we need to start acting responsibly for the sake of our planet and of the generations to come. We have a limited amount of time to put in place the necessary changes. But the change we should aim for is cultural first of all,” Brussa explained.

Nestlé has made the commitment for 100 percent of its coffee to be produced sustainably by 2025. In the roasting segment, the company said it considers lowering emissions by working in the field of consumption of energy, water and protecting atmosphere gases at factories. In addition, machinery use, waste generated at factories, employee commuting, and business travel are also to be reviewed and, if necessary, adjusted. Again, advanced technology is due to play a vital role.

Image: Bühler

Engines of sustainability

Sustainability consists of three basic pillars; all are necessary but not sufficient. Therefore, all must coexist to have a sustainable process: lower environmental impact, lower social impact, and lower economic cost, commented Elena Parmi, a spokesperson for Brambati Spa.

“The first engine of sustainability is tangible affordability for the user, basically lower energy consumption, lower maintenance cost, and lower operation cost. Automatically it leads to less environmental impact, meaning less energy is equal to less greenhouse gas, less social impact, meaning less need for night staff and emergency intervention leads to greater worker welfare, and greater economic sustainability as less need for energy, less need for spare parts, greater staff efficiency allows lower cost of operation,” Parmi said.

Brambati’s development program, which is already in place includes reducing the consumption and reuse of residual energy, reducing the number of components that make up the machinery, and permanent monitoring of the entire system with AI (artificial intelligence) that allows all operating variables to be under permanent analysis.

Parmi said that this is similar to if a person were being monitored with an electrocardiogram, blood analysis, and brain activity while doing a swimming competition or other physical and/or intellectual activities.

“Any deviations from optimal values are promptly identified when they are incipient, thus enabling timely intervention when appropriate and not in an emergency, avoiding the costs of interventions, spare parts and lost production,” Parmi said.

Among the concrete examples of how Brambati’s technological solutions help lowering carbon footprint, Parmi lists the elimination of transmissions with mechanical gearboxes, resulting in increased efficiency and reductions in components, weight, lubricants and maintenance. In addition, the reduction in energy consumption is achieved with regenerative and other innovative exhaust air abatement systems, as well as through intelligent system monitoring and management.

Preserving energy

Other companies also see energy consumption as the key segment, which could do wonders in terms of lowering carbon emissions. For instance, Berkeley-based coffee roastery Bellwether Coffee told Forbes in 2020 that its recirculating roasting technology eliminated particulates and volatile organic compounds in real-time during the roast process, eventually reducing the carbon footprint of each roasting cycle by 90 percent on average.

The company estimated that if a roaster uses renewable energy sources, it can save more than 157 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions. In addition, traditional coffee roasters use a single-pass system that intakes fresh air from outside the roaster, flash-heats it to roast the coffee, then releases it as exhaust through ventilation stacks. Bellwether’s roaster takes the exhausted air, cleans it, and reuses it. This provides hot, stable air throughout the roast cycle.

Image: Scolari Engineering

Energy efficiency and renewable energy are in the spotlight of several technology suppliers. “We focus on the efficiency of the roasting process by means of very fine control of the burner and energy recovery from the roaster stack, always focused on the coffee quality,” said Fabio Clivio, coffee roasting machinery engineer with Scolari Engineering SpA. “We have been doing this for years, so we have fine-tuned the software and the roaster to always get the best aroma from the coffee. We are using a smart green coffee preheater totally synchronized with the roasting cycle.”

In addition, Clivio said, the company has been continually reducing the quantity of CO2 emitted for a batch of roasted coffee by reducing the use of fossil fuels. Scolari realised that the roaster does not need a long warm-up, and when it is on standby, the software activates the energy-saving mode to reduce airflow and gas consumption.

“The preheating follows a specific profile of temperature and time; in this way, as the roaster is ready to load the new batch, the software ensures that the green coffee reaches the target temperature at the same time, with no risk of leaving the green coffee ìn the GBPH longer than necessary. In that way, the quality of the roasting process is guaranteed,” Clivio said.

“We are testing a roaster using a mix of natural gas and hydrogen. Also combined with electrical heating. The combination of hydrogen and electrical heating is the key for carbon-neutral coffee roasters,” Clivio explained, adding that the company uses the last generation of burners already designed to run with a mix of hydrogen and natural gas. “As the hydrogen will be available on industrial bases, our customers will be able to switch to hydrogen.”

Smart heat use

Bühler Group also has a roaster, though not for coffee yet, in its portfolio, running on hydrogen, commented Michael Blatter, head of business segment coffee and nuts, Bühler Group. “We are not only looking at the roaster but the entire value chain, and I think with our sustainability team, we are capable of offering unique customised solutions which are helping in various aspects of sustainability. The roasting process is one step, and we do have solutions in reducing fuel consumption, changing the type of fuel used and using the energy for alternative processes within a factory.”

Among the concrete measures applied to lower carbon footprint, Blatter lists, recirculation of hot air to reduce fuel consumption, preheating of coffee beans with off air from the roaster, and the use of heat recovery systems. In addition, a sustainability service analyzes the CO2 footprint of a factory and implements solutions into existing plants.

“We are working together within different businesses to use ideas and concepts, which already exist,” Blatter said, adding that the company has an R&D roadmap and is working on several solutions called to curb carbon emission of the roasting operations. However, Bühler is not disclosing the concrete details to the public, he added.

  • Vladislav Vorotnikov is a Batumi, Georgia-based multimedia B2B freelance journalist writing about the tea and coffee industry since 2012.

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