Access to reliable and affordable electricity is still a pressing issue in many rural cacao growing farms and villages around the world. Researchers at the University of Nottingham may have found a way to address this challenge by converting used cacao pods into biofuel.

The research focused particularly on Ghana and is part of the Implementation of Bio-Rural Energy Scheme (IBRES) project, backed by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund. “Ghana is the second highest producer of cocoa in the world and every ton of cocoa beans harvested generates 10 tons of cocoa pod husks. In the past, this waste material was underutilized…only a little of this material is re-used – such as for the production of compost,” explains Professor of Energy Storage Technologies Jo Darkwa.

When cacao pods are harvested, the beans are removed whilst the pod shells are thrown out. Professor Jo Darkwa commented that “feasibility studies indicate that cocoa pod husks could be converted into valuable biofuels; an important energy supply for rural areas [in Ghana], that have only 15 per cent electricity coverage at present. If successful, this new bio-energy infrastructure would support the Ghanaian government’s aim for universal access to electricity by 2030.”

The technology works by burning used cacao pods in a gasification system to produce into a substance known as syngas, or synthesis gas. Synthesis gas is comprised of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen, which can be collected and burned using a gas generator to generate electricity.

In addition to the generation of electricity, the research suggests that “local jobs would emerge for the collection and transportation, treatment, storage and processing of this potentially lucrative byproduct. A community energy cooperative model will also help the farmers to make money from their new bio-energy source and hence reduce poverty.”

Professor Jo Darkwa told Cacao Magazine that the biggest challenge to implementing this technology are the “socio-economic, technical and cultural barriers.” Nevertheless, “all aspects of the power project are ongoing,” and they hope to find a swift solution to introducing cacao pod generated biofuels.

Whilst the research focused specifically on Ghana, if proven successful, the technology could be implemented as an off-grid electricity solution around the world. Not only could this alleviate a huge number of people affected by energy poverty, in many places where electricity is not readily available, wood is often burned and used as biomass fuel. Reducing wood burning could reduce deforestation levels as well as health issues related to wood smoke exposure. Moreover, many farmers already have an abundance of cacao pod shells which could soon provide a valuable renewable energy source.

Research from the University of Nottingham: