Are Cigarette Butts the Secret to Better Roads?

LINDSAY FOX, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // CC BY 2.0
LINDSAY FOX, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // CC BY 2.0

A cigarette butt on the pavement is disgusting. A cigarette butt in the pavement, though—well, that's another story. Scientists writing in the journal Construction and Building Materials say butt-studded asphalt could be the wave of the future.

Tobacco companies produce about 6 trillion cigarettes every year, which leads to about 1.3 million tons of butts.

Lead author Abbas Mohajerani is an engineer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. "In Australia alone, people smoke about 25 to 30 billion filtered cigarettes a year and, of these, about 7 billion are littered," he said in a statement.

Butts that end up in a landfill are not much better off. They're slow to decompose, and when they do, they release their nasty chemicals into the soil and water around them.

Mohajerani knows that we're not going to get everyone on Earth to stop smoking. But there may be other things we can do. He and his colleagues at RMIT have begun incorporating cigarette butts into different construction materials.

They started with bricks. And while it may sound like a weird, abstract art project, the addition of cigarette butts actually makes a lot of sense. The very thing that makes cigarettes disposable—their flammability—also can help make better, cheaper bricks. The researchers found that changing a brick's composition to include just 1 percent cigarette waste reduced the amount of energy required to fire that brick by a whopping 58 percent.

The waste-added bricks also were better at insulating than standard bricks—which could reduce a brick building's heating and cooling costs.

For their latest study, the team sealed cigarette butts in bitumen and paraffin wax, then combined them with hot asphalt. The resulting pavement was not only functional but, like the bricks, better for the surrounding environment. The inclusion of the bitumen decreased the pavement's ability to conduct heat, which could help keep already overheated cities cooler.

Most importantly, both the bricks and the asphalt imprisoned the cigarettes' toxic chemicals and prevented them from poisoning their surroundings.

"This research shows that you can create a new construction material while ridding the environment of a huge waste problem," Mohajerani said.

Why Is Pee Yellow?

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

Your body is kind of like a house. You bring things into your body by eating, drinking, and breathing. But just like the things we bring home to real houses, we don’t need every part of what we take in. So there are leftovers, or garbage. And if you let garbage sit around in your house or your body for too long, it gets gross and can make you sick. Your body takes out the garbage by peeing and pooping. These two things are part of your body’s excretory system (ECKS-krih-tore-eee SISS-tem), which is just a fancy way of saying “trash removal.” If your body is healthy, when you look in the toilet you should see brown poop and yellow pee.

Clear, light yellow pee is a sign that your excretory system and the rest of your body are working right. If your pee, or urine (YER-inn), is not see-through, that might mean you are sick. Dark yellow urine usually means that you aren’t drinking enough water. On the other hand, really pale or colorless pee can mean you might be drinking too much water! 

Your blood is filtered through two small organs called kidneys (KID-knees). Remember the garbage we talked about earlier? The chemicals called toxins (TOCK-sins) are like garbage in your blood. Your kidneys act like a net, catching the toxins and other leftovers and turning them into pee.

One part of your blood is called hemoglobin (HEE-moh-gloh-bin). This is what makes your blood red. Hemoglobin goes through a lot of changes as it passes through your body. When it reaches your kidneys, it turns yellow thanks to a chemical called urobilin (yer-ah-BY-lin). Urobilin is kind of like food coloring. The more water you add, the lighter it will be. That's why, if you see dark yellow pee in the toilet, it's time to ask your mom or dad for a cup of water. 

To learn more about pee, check out this article from Kids Health. 

Scientists Discover How to Snap Spaghetti Into Two Perfect Pieces

iStock
iStock

Important news for pasta lovers: Researchers at MIT just figured out how to snap a strand of spaghetti into two perfect pieces, according to New Scientist. The days of having to sweep up the tiny fragments that fly in all directions when you break spaghetti into two pot-ready portions are over.

In 2005, researchers in France figured out why spaghetti cracks into bits: The strand flexes in the opposite direction after the initial snap, creating a “snap-back effect” that causes it to break a second time.

Now, after snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks, MIT mathematicians have the solution. The researchers used a pair of clamps to twist individual strands of spaghetti almost 360 degrees. Next, the two clamps were slowly brought together to bend the stick, resulting in a perfect fracture. This worked for two kinds of spaghetti with different thicknesses—Barilla No. 5 and Barilla No. 7, to be precise.

The process was recorded using a high-speed camera (which can be viewed on MIT's website). While reviewing the footage, researchers realized that adding a twist is key because it prevents the spaghetti stick from forcefully flexing backwards. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Even without equipment, you can can try this at home. It might take a bit of practice, though, so have a couple of boxes handy. Ronald Heisser, a former MIT student who is now a graduate student at Cornell University, came up with the technique for how to manually snap spaghetti in two.

“I would start with my hands opposite each other—one hand upside down and the other right side up—and then make both of them right side up while twisting the spaghetti so you can work your arm strength into it,” Heisser tells Mental Floss.

“You know you're twisting it right when you feel it really trying to untwist itself. Then, you can carefully bring the ends together, trying not to change the twist at all.”

He noted that your hands should also be dry, because oiliness can make the strand slip in your fingers.

However, it's unlikely that anyone has the patience to sit there and snap one strand of spaghetti at a time. So does this trick work for a whole handful of pasta? Dr. Jörn Dunkel, who led the study, says it’s difficult to predict how a handful of spaghetti would fracture, but he believes this technique would reduce the number of pieces you end up with.

“When many spaghetti [strands] become bunched together, they can transfer energy between them, which can change their bending and fracture behavior significantly,” Dr. Dunkel tells Mental Floss. “Very roughly, as a rule of thumb, one would expect that splitting the energy between bending and twisting should always help to reduce the fragment number compared to pure bending.”

Of course, if you want to cook the true Italian way, you’ll leave your spaghetti unsnapped and intact. (Longer pasta is said to wrap around your fork better, making it easier to eat.)

But if you want to try this bend-and-snap technique for yourself, the purists would probably give you a pass.

[h/t New Scientist]

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