Coffee waste into electricity project wins 2018 Newton Prize for Colombia

The third 2018 Newton Prize winner was announced on Thursday night in Bogota, Colombia. The winning partnership is made up of scientists from the University of Surrey and the University of Antioquia, in Colombia. The team hopes to turn environmentally damaging coffee into electricity using a microbial fuel cell.

Waste water from coffee processing is harmful to the environment, as it contains substances that take a long time to degrade. This 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.

Newton funded scientists 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 research team is now developing a small, inexpensive device suitable for use on Colombian farms. The aim is to initially deploy it in the coffee growing area of Southwest Antioquia.

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. As well as offering an environmentally-friendly alternative to treat waste water, the generation of electricity could boost social and economic development for Colombia’s farming communities. If their fuel cells are used successfully in Colombia, the researchers hope to engage with large coffee companies in Europe to adopt the same approach to treating their waste.

Dr Dan Korbel, Global Head of Science, British Council, said: "As the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations we promote the exchange between scientists and researchers worldwide. The winning UK-Colombia project which was supported by a Researcher Links travel grant shows that mobility and international collaboration can make a huge difference in finding innovative solutions to developmental challenges. Congratulations to Professor Lina María Agudelo-Escobar and her team."

Professor Lina María Agudelo-Escobar, Associate Professor, University of Antioquia, said: "This research proposes a potential high-impact solution to environmental, social and economic challenges facing rural sectors."

The project was featured in an article by The Guardian and in a film by the University of Antioquia.

Project leads: Lina María Agudelo-Escobar, Associate Professor, University of Antioquia and Dr Claudio Avignone-Rossa, University of Surrey.

Delivery partners: British Council and Colciencias – the Administrative Department of Science, Technology and Innovation.


2018 Newton Prize

The Newton Prize is an annual £1 million fund developed to showcase how UK science and innovation partnerships are helping to solve global development challenges. The Newton Prize also incentivises researchers and innovators to participate in the Newton Fund as partners with the UK to work on the most important challenges facing developing countries such as poverty, climate change and public health.

This year 140 Newton funded projects, fellowships or other awards applied for the Newton Prize. Five prizes of up to £200,000 each will be awarded to winning projects with the eligible Latin American countries: Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico.

The funding 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.

Sam Gyimah, the minister of state for science, research and innovation: "The annual £1m Newton Prize builds upon, celebrates and further encourages research partnerships. It’s great to see this year’s applications representing the breadth of the Newton Fund’s work from public and private sector organisations based around the world.

"The uniqueness of the Newton Fund is the partnership working between the UK and partner country at all levels from government to government, delivery partner to delivery partner through to project lead to project lead. From energy and healthcare, to agriculture and digital, the Newton Fund demonstrates how bringing researchers together has enormous potential to change lives for the better across the world."

The Newton Prize was judged by a distinguished and independent Newton Prize committee with expertise in the development sector, the Latin American region as well as science and innovation. It was chaired by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate. The committee reviewed the short-listed applications, along with feedback from over 400 expert peer reviewers, and chose the winners.


Further announcements

  • During November the shortlisted projects will be celebrated at award events taking place in Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico, where the winning project for that country will be announced. These events will be followed by a UK reception in December hosted by Sam Gyimah MP, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation to celebrate international and science innovation collaborations.

The Newton Fund

  • The Newton Prize is part of the Newton Fund. The Newton Fund builds research and innovation partnerships with 17 partner countries to support their economic development and social welfare, and to develop their research and innovation capacity for long-term sustainable growth. It has a total UK Government investment of £735 million up until 2021, with matched resources from the partner countries.
  • The Newton Fund is managed by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and delivered through 7 UK delivery partners, which includes UK Research and Innovation (comprising the 7 research councils and Innovate UK), the UK Academies, the British Council and the Met Office.
Newton Fund and GCRF are drawing to a close. The International Science Partnerships Fund (ISPF) is a new UK Government fund supporting research and innovation on the major themes of our time: Planet, Health, Tech, Talent. To stay on the Newton-GCRF website click Continue, if you would like to find out more about ISPF click Read more.