The Quest To Turn Littered Cigarette Butts into Something Useful

We're going to need more supercapacitors just like we need a place to stick all these butts.

Ben Richmond

Ben Richmond

Image: Flickr/Waferboard

When life gives you lemons, you know what to do, but when it gives you 5.6 trillion used cigarettes every year? A group of South Korean scientists recently published a study that proposes a one-step process to turn nasty ol' flicked butts into something useful—like coating the electrodes of supercapacitors.

Cigarette butts are the gross evidence of a nasty habit, and what's worse is they're absolutely everywhere. What's even worser is they're toxic and not biodegradable. Yet 766,571 metric tons of them are going into the environment every year.

But the team from Seoul National University sees, if not beauty in trash, then at least some utility. They found that the cellulose acetate fibers that cigarette filters are made of could be turned into a carbon-based coating for the electrochemical components of supercapacitors, which store extremely large amounts of electrical energy for things like backing up batteries, handling the fluctuating demands of laptops, storing the regenerative electrical power from electric cars' brakes—all sorts of stuff. We're going to need more supercapacitors just like we need a place to stick all these cigarette butts, which is why this plan is so appealing.

"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," the study's co-author Jongheop Yi, from Seoul National University, said. "Our method is just one way of achieving this."

Well, not so fast. There's still the matter of how one gathers all those butts, which are flicked just all over the place. As long as you're looking to change a social norm, it seems like getting people not to smoke is the better option. Is it more realistic for smokers to always put their butts somewhere? Would butt flickers suddenly start not flicking because they thought those butts could be used in battery manufacturing?

But their method seems easy enough: Just burn it up, in a process called pyrolysis. The resulting char has different sized pores, which according to the researchers is ideal. Once attached to an electrode, and tested in a three-electrode system, the researchers found that the material stored a higher amount of electrical energy than commercially available carbon, graphene, or carbon nanotube options.

Still it's hard not to feel a little skeptical about this endeavor. We've heard about uses for recycled butts before, as Matt Skenazy outlined in a 2011 Miller-McCune (the magazine that became Pacific Standard) article. For example, Skenazy found plans to add the cigarette butts to a surface they already knew intimately: the sidewalk.

Grind up the butts and add them to concrete, replacing fibermesh, an anti-cracking agent that is often added to concrete and usually made from polypropylene. The thought is that the concrete would surround the butts — for instance, in a slab foundation — and keep their toxins from leaching into the environment.

Or you could use them to protect steel. A 2010 Chinese study demonstrated that extracts from cigarette butts soaked in water could be used as rust control. To test this they tested how well the butts protected steel from hydrochloric acid heated up to 90 degrees Celsius, which is such badass-sounding research, it probably smokes.

One just hopes it uses an ashtray.