Cigarette Butts Recycled Into Powerful Energy-Storage Material

Elizabeth Montalbano

September 22, 2014

4 Min Read
Cigarette Butts Recycled Into Powerful Energy-Storage Material

Cigarette butts have become such a common form of litter we probably don't even see them anymore when we step over them on the street. But some Korean researchers have figured out a way to help rid the world of discarded cigarette filters and turn them into a form of energy storage.

A group of researchers at the Seoul National University have discovered a way to take material from cigarette butts and turn it into a carbon-based material that's ideal for storing energy and creating a powerful supercapacitor.

Specifically, researchers led by Professor Jongheop Yi from the university's School of Chemical and Biological Engineering transformed cellulose acetate fibers from used cigarette filters into a porous carbon material that contains both mesopores and micropores spontaneously. This pore structure is ideal for developing a powerful supercapacitor that can store a large amount of energy -- far more than conventional activated carbon, they said.

By using a one-step burning technique called pyrolysis, researchers developed a carbon material with a large number of tiny pores that can be used to coat the electrodes of a supercapacitor, they said. The pores in the material create a large surface area that allow for a significant amount of energy to be stored in the cell.

The prepared carbon material is capable of reproducing its electrochemical performance during the 6,000 cycles required for charge and discharge measurements, according to researchers.

The team published its discovery in a paper in the journal "Nanotechnology."

Gil-Pyo Kim, co-author of the paper and the manager of the research team, explained to Design News how the supercapacitor is designed. "The used cigarette butts are converted into the carbon powder," he told us in an email. "To fabricate the electrode for a use in a supercapacitor, the powder is mixed with two additives, which are called a binder and a conducting additive. This mixture provides a slurry type of electrode material, which is attached to a metal material (a so-called current collector). After that, the final electrode for use in the supercapacitor is produced."

Smokers around the world discard a staggering number of cigarette butts each year, posing a threat to the health of both people and the environment. Cigarette filters create cancer-causing chemicals, pesticides and nicotine, and can put hazardous materials like arsenic and lead into water supplies and agricultural land. Kim said it was this problem that inspired him to come up with a way to use cigarette butts more effectively, which led to the development of the supercapacitor.

He said it would be easy to mass-produce the material from cigarette butts to develop these supercapacitors, but first a stable system must be in place to collect and supply the discarded cigarettes for the manufacturing process. "It must be the first obstacle that we, as a society, need to solve cooperatively," he told us. "We probably need a systematical approach, which requires any assistance by the government or a private enterprise."

Kim added that the research team is continuing to explore ways to exploit this material for potential commercial use and is seeking collaborative partners in this effort.

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About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano

Elizabeth Montalbano has been a professional journalist covering the telecommunications, technology and business sectors since 1998. Prior to her work at Design News, she has previously written news, features and opinion articles for Phone+, CRN (now ChannelWeb), the IDG News Service, Informationweek and CNNMoney, among other publications. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she also has lived and worked in Phoenix, Arizona; San Francisco and New York City. She currently resides in Lagos, Portugal. Montalbano has a bachelor's degree in English/Communications from De Sales University and a master's degree from Arizona State University in creative writing.

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