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Public talk tonight explores Tim Hortons cups as fuel

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 Tim Hortons coffee routinely fuels students. But the paper coffee cups themselves might one day provide fuel for their cars.

That’s the research premise of University of Manitoba biosystems engineering Prof. David Levin and microbiology Prof. Richard Sparling. The two are working on a $10.5-million Genome Canada grant to find ways to produce biofuels such as ethanol or hydrogen.

The professors are offering a presentation of their research tonight at 7 p.m. at the Robert B. Schultz Lecture Theatre, St. John’s College at the Fort Garry Campus of the U of M.

They promise anyone can understand their talk, with or without a science degree.

Thanks to an undergraduate class project, they’ve stumbled onto the very real possibility that bacteria could eat and process shredded and minutely ground-up Tim Hortons cups and turn them into biofuels.

There are four Tim Hortons outlets just on the Fort Garry campus, Levin pointed out Tuesday. "Every day between class changes there are huge lineups and huge amounts of cups," he said.

The research they’ve done so far shows whatever is in the cups, the bacteria like it, and the bacteria can convert the cups into useable fuel.

But with Starbucks cups, different material, the end product is nowhere near as good, he said.

"There’s clearly a difference in the cups. We don’t know exactly why," Levin said.

Only a few communities in Ontario will recycle Tim Hortons cups, everywhere else they go into the garbage, Levin said.

"Tim Hortons cups are not recyclable in Winnipeg," he said. "That’s the issue."

Alas, there’s a ‘but’ to all this.

"We still don’t have any dedicated funding," Levin said.

The $10.5-million project funding doesn’t cover any research on biofuels from Tim Hortons cups. Levin and Sparling have grant applications out, but so far haven’t received any research money.

"If we were able to get some dedicated support, we could expand the non-recyclable paper products we could look at," Levin said.

That means not only checking out takeout coffee cups from Robin’s and other chains, but also the paper towels from the coffee shop washrooms, the paper rings coffee chains put around takeout cups to save you from getting your hand burned, the trays on which you take out multiple cups — the possibilities seem endless.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

 

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