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Cigarette Butts: Fodder for the Future's Green Tech?

Korean researchers may have uncovered an innovative use for tar-stained filters.


Smokers, do not use this as an excuse to puff more, but science has found a possible planet-friendly use for your tar-stained butts. When given a simple chemical treatment, Korean researchers say, old filters can help make energy-retaining capacitors that could be used in wind turbines, electric cars, and portable electronics.

Cigarette butts are a major source of litter throughout the world, with several trillion winding up in the environment each year. In the U.S., they're the most common form of litter scattered on streets, and worldwide they beat out any other trash stinking up beaches and in waterways. And they don't just sit there harmlessly, slowly degrading; they leach out toxic chemicals and carcinogens, creating a risk for wildlife and marine systems.

But Minzae Lee and Gil-Pyo Kim and others at Seoul National University, who have a new paper in Nanotechnology, believe they've discovered a way to reduce stray butts while helping green manufacturing. They gathered dirty filters from Marlboro Light Gold, The One Orange, and lime and rum-flavored Bohem Cigar Mojito cigarettes (Korea's sure got variety), and exposed them to high heat in a nitrogen-rich environment. That transformed the thousands of cellulose-acetate fibers in the filters, seen at right, into the black "hybrid carbon material" at left:

(Lee, Kim, et al.)

This material is densely riddled with pores of various sizes, which turns out to be great for making efficient supercapacitors. When they ran a test of the stuff's capabilities, they found it "stored a higher amount of electrical energy than commercially available carbon and also had a higher amount of storage compared to graphene and carbon nanotubes," according to IOPscience.

Needless to say, the task of gathering up enough far-and-widespread butts to sustain manufacturing could be a challenge. If this research is to be of any use, science needs to also come up with a way to stop smokers from flicking their butts everywhere and start placing them into proper receptacles. (Perhaps this enticing, bleep-blooping ashtray could help.) But it's a commendable attempt at recycling. Writes IOPscience

Co-author of the study, Professor Jongheop Yi, from Seoul National University, said: "Our study has shown that used cigarette filters can be transformed into a high-performing carbon-based material using a simple one-step process, which simultaneously offers a green solution to meeting the energy demands of society.

"Numerous countries are developing strict regulations to avoid the trillions of toxic and non-biodegradable used cigarette filters that are disposed of into the environment each year; our method is just one way of achieving this."

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.