Billions of cigarette butts are discarded around the world each year and, even when disposed of properly, pose a threat to the environment by leaching arsenic, lead and other nasty chemicals into land and waterways. New research shows these butts could be set for a new lease on life, with a team of Korean scientists demonstrating that used cigarette filters could actually double as a highly-effective energy storage material.

Scientists from Seoul National University found that through a process called pyrolysis, the cellulose acetate fibers that make up the filter of a cigarette could be transformed into a carbon-based material that can be used as a high-performing component for supercapacitors; long-lasting, fast-charging devices capable of storing huge amounts of energy. The pyrolysis process involves a one-step burning technique that creates tiny holes of varying size in the material to increase its total surface area.

“A high-performing supercapacitor material should have a large surface area, which can be achieved by incorporating a large number of small pores into the material,” says Professor Jongheop Yi, one of the study's authors. “A combination of different pore sizes ensures that the material has high power densities, which is an essential property in a supercapacitor for the fast charging and discharging."

The team put its new material to the test by attaching it to an electrode and observed it in a three-electrode system, taking note of the material's ability to absorb and then discharge electrolyte ions. They found it stored a higher amount of electrical energy than graphene, carbon nanotubes and carbon, a material popular for use in conventional supercapacitors.

The scientists are hopeful that by coating the supercapacitor's electrode in the new carbon-based material, it could lead to better energy storage for electric vehicles, wind turbines and mobile devices.

The team's research was published in the journal Nanotechnology.