Conventional cigarette filters are made of cellulose—low-tech, old, but effective. Chinese scientists think new nanotech filters could do a better job at filtering out badness. It's a desperate 21st Century move to make smoking safer.
One thing we know for sure: Smoking isn't safe. Even though your typical cigarette sports half an inch of filter on its tip—made of cellulose acetate, which grabs onto nicotine, tar, and other baddies like hydrocarbons—each lungful of smoke contains many wicked chemicals that damage smokers' health. Over the years much science has gone into improving the technology in filters, and attempts to include nanotechnology like carbon nanotubes have proven successful if expensive and with unclassified health risks—indeed some researchers worry about the unknown medical impacts of carbon nanotubes.
But researchers from Fuzhou University, in partnership with the Fujian Tobacco Industrial Corporation, have been working on titanate nanotubes and nanosheets used as alternative filter materials. Titanate nanomaterials are much cheaper and easier to produce in bulk than some alternatives—and titanium dioxide is already a common ingredient in many products we're exposed to on a daily basis (your toothpaste, for one thing). From the raw materials themselves there's thus no added health risk, although it's probably safe to say the nano-material aspect of the technology needs further medical verification.
More important than that, though, when added to conventional cigarette filters the titanate nanotubes improve the filtration significantly, greatly improving the extraction of dangerous chemicals from smoke that passes into the smoker's lungs—particularly when nanotubes were used instead of nanosheets.
Skeptics will question this science, of course. Smoking is still dangerous, and maybe smoking a nanotech cigarette is less dangerous, but it's still absolutely not good for you. It could even help tobacco companies push their product to people who would otherwise have given up on smoking when considering the health risks—definitely a bad thing. And slapping the decidedly 21st Century trick of nanotechnology onto an ages-old habit to de-fang it a little just seems such a waste. At least it's a better solution than that sci-fi future solution proposed in The Fifth Element:
Ultimately, though, there is some good science here, and the Chinese team imagines titanate nanotubes could significantly improve other filtration technology, which could then find use in gas masks and air filters in industrial or medical environments.
[Image via Flickr user internetsdairy]