Scientists Are Using Your Smoking Habit To Make Renewable Energy

CREDIT: Shutterstock
CREDIT: Shutterstock

To help break the world’s addiction to fossil fuels, scientists are channeling another harmful addiction: smoking cigarettes.

Two new and innovative ways to make and store renewable energy, both of which originate in one form or another from the tobacco industry, were highlighted this week in two separate instances. In the first, one of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers announced it was helping to create jet fuel out of a new type of tobacco plant. In another, a team of South Korean scientists published a paper in the journal Nanotechnology, finding that used cigarette butts can be made into batteries that store renewable energy.

Powering Airplanes With Tobacco

As first reported in the LA Times, Boeing Co. announced Wednesday that it is teaming up with the Dutch aviation biofuels company SkyNRG and South African Airways to develop jet fuel from a new type of tobacco plant called Solaris. The Solaris plant would be grown in South Africa, bolstering the local economy.

The idea of making biofuel out of tobacco isn’t new, but the Solaris plant — which has virtually no nicotine — is. A plant without the addictive component of nicotine is could make growing it in the country more ideal, as increases in plant production wouldn’t inadvertently bolster the cigarette industry.

“By using hybrid tobacco, we can leverage knowledge of tobacco growers in South Africa to grow a marketable biofuel crop without encouraging smoking,” Ian Cruickshank, South African Airways Group environmental affairs specialist, told the Times.

To make the fuel, the companies said farmers would derive oil from the tobacco plant’s seeds. The plant’s large leaves could also store a lot of fuel, which the companies say they hope to be able to make use of in the next few years. Tobacco plants are ubiquitous in South Africa and around the world, and the plant generates multiple harvests per year, making it an ideal source for biofuel, the companies said.

The airline industry itself produces approximately two percent of all human-caused carbon emissions, according to The International Air Transport Association. That number is relatively small, but could increase to 15 percent by 2050 as demand for air travel rises as developing economies expand and incomes increase. Flying by jet is also currently one of the least fuel-efficient forms of transportation.

That being said, any innovation that could make flying more fuel-efficient and less carbon intensive as demand continues to rise is especially welcome. In their announcement, Boeing, South African Airways, and SkyNRG said using biofuels could eventually reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent compared with petroleum-based fuels.

However, it is also important to note that — as with any biofuel — increased use of the fuel would create more demand for a crop, encouraging more farmers to grow it. Some of that will be grown on already maintained land. However, thanks to industrial farming practices, new agriculture on virgin land will also come with new carbon emissions. That could increase greenhouse gas emissions during production, even as emissions are decreasing during consumption.

But if the world is to one day switch to a renewable-based economy, biofuels will likely be necessary for aviation — at least if the only other options are batteries and electric motors. As Technology Review points out, batteries store far less energy than liquid fuels, and usually wind up being too big and heavy to successfully power a commercial plane.

Making Batteries Out Of Cigarette Butts

Speaking of batteries, though, we do need them — especially when it comes to storing renewable energy. That’s because unlike fossil fuels that can generate energy at any time, renewable sources like wind and solar usually generate electricity intermittently. To use that electricity during the times it’s not being generated, batteries come in handy.

Those batteries can now be made out of used cigarette butts, according to a team of South Korean scientists who published their research in the journal Nanotechnology on Tuesday. The research showed cigarette butts can be transformed — via a burning process called pyrolysis — into a carbon-based material that is “perfectly suited” to storing energy.

The discovery serves a dual purpose, study co-author and Seoul National University professor Jongheop Yi said. It not only helps solve the energy storage issue, but it also means the filters can be recycled instead of polluting the environment. Currently, as many as 5.6 trillion used-cigarettes are thrown into the environment worldwide every year, according to Science Daily.

“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,” Yi said. “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.”