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Coffee process taps the sun’s energy

Raul Raudales sniffed arabica coffee beans last week. He and Richard Trubey (center) met Mark Verrochi to discuss the coffee drying process. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The typical American drinks three cups of coffee a day, but the average Joe doesn’t know much about his morning cup.

It takes two dozen steps for a Central American coffee cherry, the fruit that contains the beans, to be transformed into a powerful pick-me-up. Raul Raudales is concerned with one of those steps, drying. He and his partner, Richard Trubey, have spent 17 years on a singular mission: to help coffee producers stay viable by using renewable energy to dry coffee beans.

“Most people don’t think about how important it is to dry coffee beans efficiently,’’ said Raudales, an engineer and native of Honduras.


Raudales and Trubey, a technical writer and human rights activist, met on the University of Massachusetts Lowell campus in 1990. They founded the Mesoamerican Development Institute at UMass Lowell to create a more sustainable coffee-producing system.

In coffee-producing countries in Central America, producers generally employ wood-fired dryers, a century-old technology that eats up an alarming amount of firewood and electricity, Trubey said. “It’s equal to about three square centimeters of forest for a cup of coffee,’’ he said.

The partners created a hybrid dryer that converts coffee parchment, discarded husks from the bean, into biomass fuel pellets. The dryers burn the pellets and combine that carbon-neutral energy with heat from solar panels to dry beans just plucked from the trees.

Armed with $250,000 in funding from the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries in the Netherlands, the “coffeepreneurs’’ are starting to make inroads in Honduras, where a dryer is being installed in a village. Once it is complete, farmers will have no need to send their beans to a far-flung processing center to dry them, the partners said. The result will be better coffee and less expense for the farmer.

“We could create huge changes,’’ said Trubey, who has approached banks, investors, and major coffee companies as potential backers.


Since the technology is so novel, deep-pocketed funders have been few, but some recent partnerships offer hope, including relationships with UMass Lowell, UMass Amherst, and universities in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The universities can teach students about the creation of sustainable industries using the real-world example of coffee producers to bring theory to life.

“Coffee is a mechanism by which the students can see the connection; it’s not just something a professor dreamed up in his head,’’ said Bill Moeller, an environmental engineer and UMass Lowell professor emeritus. “It’s relevant to the real world.’’

Moeller said by bringing professors from Central America here to train them in sustainable coffee production, and by sending students there to see coffee production in the field, the university creates an inexpensive way to increase its global reach.

To Raudales, tapping New England companies to manufacture the dryers, which are assembled abroad, is equally as important to create “more sustainable processes in our economy.’’

In the end, it all boils down to the coffee. Roasted at Red Barn Coffee Roasters in Upton and brewed at the UMass Lowell campus dining hall, Café Solar, the brand name adopted by the partners, is the only coffee on the marke tproduced with industrial solar dryers. For a teacher of sustainable technologies, “it doesn’t get any better than that,’’ said a UMass Lowell professor of environmental engineering, Kenneth Lee.