Are carbon nanotubes biodegradable? (5 health impacts of CNTs) 

This article will talk about the biodegradability status of Carbon nanotubes. Other covered aspects would include: 

  • Are carbon nanotubes biodegradable?
  • Why is the biodegradability of carbon nanotubes important?
  • Can carbon nanotubes be recycled?
  • How are CNTs disposed of?
  • FAQs

Are carbon nanotubes biodegradable?

Carbon nanotubes, even though they are regarded as fairly stable, can be degraded by microbes, macrophages, and enzymatic actions. 

The biodegradation of carbon nanotubes is important because it will ease the burden on waste management systems and also the environment. 

It is speculated that CNTs may release harmful substances (acting like asbestos) and therefore it is preferred that CNTs may be incinerated. The incineration may, however, cause further environmental problems such as a decrease in air quality. 

It is also advised to recycle CNTs as recycling would lead to better waste and resource management. Also, recycling would lead to better employment prospects as well. 

What is the biodegradability status of carbon nanotubes?

In order to probe into the biodegradability status of carbon nanotubes, it is imperative to know the materials that carbon nanotubes are made of.

Carbon nanotubes are made from a material called graphene. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are cylindrical molecules that are made from sheets of graphene. Graphene can be explained as a single-layer carbon atom. 

Research has shown that graphene is biodegradable with no blunt and direct impacts on human health. Therefore, it can be stanced that carbon nanotubes will also be biodegradable because carbon nanotubes are made from graphene primarily. 

The materials that are used to make any product can tell a lot about the environmental impact of the product. When the environmental impact is taken into consideration, biodegradability is an important parameter. Other parameters involve recycling, composting, and overall degradation. 

Many people confuse two very similar terms. These are degradation and biodegradation. And the confusion is pretty valid. Degradation is the breakdown that may be done by external factors such as heat or chemicals. 

However, biodegradation is specifically reserved for the degradation by the action of microbes and enzymes. That is why we have bio in the term biodegradation. Bio means life. 

However, biodegradation is not only done by the microbes. There are other factors as well at play. These factors include sunlight, temperature, pressure, aeration, and the presence or absence of oxygen. 

Regarding biodegradation, there are two classes of waste that are there. One is biodegradable waste and the other is a non-biodegradable waste. 

Carbon nanotubes are an example of biodegradable waste and they will degrade readily by the action of microbes. This will cause less burden on the environment and the waste management systems. 

Why is the biodegradability of carbon nanotubes essential?

This section will cover the importance of why the biodegradability of carbon nanotubes matter. In other words, what are the benefits that are caused by the biodegradation of carbon nanotubes? This can be studied through the impacts caused by non-biodegradable material. 

The current waste generation stands at staggering figures. An average person is responsible for the creation or generation of more than 4 kgs of waste in a day. This amounts to more than 2 billion tons of waste in a year. 

This is already putting the waste management authorities to a big test. Therefore, it is important for products such as carbon nanotubes to be biodegradable. 

If carbon nanotubes are not biodegradable, this will lead to further decapacitation of waste management authorities and the result would be an increase in pollution and waste-related problems. 

A non-biodegradable material can remain in the system for more than a thousand years, which potentially is forever. Because by the time the product will degrade, many billion tons of the same product will be added to the landfill setting. 

Also, there is this general understanding that non-biodegradable material causes more harm to the environment than biodegradable material. This is mainly because non-biodegradable is mostly made from the derivatives of fossil fuels. 

The derivatives of fossil fuels mean that fossil fuels are burnt to make certain products. This leads to the release of harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide et cetera. 

These GHGs are responsible for environmental phenomena such as global warming, melting of glaciers, unprecedented weather patterns et cetera. 

Can carbon nanotubes be recycled?

The question if a material can be recycled or not is an important question because, in many ways, recycling is preferred over biodegradability. 

As per the studies, it is stated that it is certainly possible to recycle carbon nanotubes. Not only is it possible, but it is also asserted that carbon nanotubes be recycled.

This will lead to a number of positive impacts on the environment. Recycling can be explained as a process of reusing materials after certain modifications and changes. 

The recycling of nanotubes may offer the following advantages:

Decreased use of raw materials 

The primary benefit that must be mentioned is the fact that when a material is recycled, the pressure on the raw materials is reduced. This is because when CNTs are recycled, they are not made from raw materials. 

This is a big factor in the case of limited, non-renewable resources because in this case, the source materials are already very limited. This is the case for CNTs because it is a petroleum-based products. What this means is that CNTs are made from fossil fuels. 

Fossil fuels, as we know, are a very limited, non-renewable resource which is being depleted at a very fast rate. By recycling CNTs, the pressure on the source of CNTs may be reduced. 

Less energy consumption 

Another benefit that is ensured by the recycling of CNTs is the fact that there is a decreased amount of energy used in the recycling of CNTs as compared to the production of CNTs from scratch. 

This is mainly because when CNTs are recycled, it is not made from scratch. Rather it is recycled from already made CNTs and therefore, there is a lesser consumption of energy. 

Another factor why this is important is because most of the production facilities make use of non-renewable resources. The consumption of non-renewable sources of energy such as gas or electricity leads to the release of harmful gases in the atmosphere. These gases include carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, and sulphur dioxide. 

These gases are termed greenhouse gases and are responsible for many environmental anomalies such as the greenhouse effect, global warming, unprecedented weather patterns, loss of life, and destruction of habitats. 

Better economic prospects 

Another benefit of recycling CNTs is that it leads to better economic prospects. Not only is there a decreased need for buying raw materials but also there is the generation of employment opportunities as well. 

When products and materials are recycled, their negative effects are either delayed or deterred. This also leads to better economic prospects because waste eventually leads to a loss of substantiality and loss of economy. 

How are CNTs disposed of?

Incineration of CNTs (5 health impacts of CNTs) 

One common method to dispose of CNTs is to incinerate them. This is mainly because there are various controversies when it comes to the topic of CNTs. Many claims that CNTs lead to a release of certain particles that may be hazardous to human health and the environment.

This means that carbon nanotubes may act as an asbestos material that may cause:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Lung scarring
  • Fibrosis 
  • Lung inflammation
  • Asthma 

However, proper research is still underway. To be on the safe side, it is suggested that carbon nanotube waste must be categorised as hazardous waste and should be incinerated. When carbon nanotubes are incinerated, the risk of contamination and release of unwanted particles will be eliminated. 

However, to ensure this, you must incinerate CNTs at higher temperatures (more than 850 degrees Celsius) for an appropriate period of time. 

The burning or incineration of carbon nanotubes would lead to other environmental issues, however. This is because when waste is burnt or incinerated, there is a release of harmful gases and fumes. 

One of them is carbon dioxide among other greenhouse gases. There will be an increased emission of pollutants and toxins. 

This may reduce air quality and cause respiratory problems for nearby populations. Also, the release of GHGs such as carbon dioxide would lead to environmental anomalies such as global warming, unseen weather patterns, decreased tree count, acid rain, ozone depletion, medical complications et cetera. 

Disposal of CNTs in landfills

Disposing of material in landfills is a common procedure to deal with both biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. A landfill site or garbage dump is a controlled environment for the discarding of waste material so that there are minimal impacts of the waste on the environment. 

However, since there are mixed reviews about the release of harmful materials from CNTs, many researchers believe that it is not wise to dispose of CNTs in a landfill site. The possible release of substances from CNTs may cause the degradation or transformation of polymers. 

This can contaminate the other waste and may also put the surrounding areas and nearby people at risk of exposure and detrimental impacts such as respiratory issues, asthma, and pulmonary fibrosis. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that carbon nanotubes, even though they are regarded as fairly stable, can be degraded by microbes, macrophages, and enzymatic actions. 

The biodegradation of carbon nanotubes is important because it will ease the burden on waste management systems and also the environment. 

It is speculated that CNTs may release harmful substances (acting like asbestos) and therefore it is preferred that CNTs may be incinerated. The incineration may, however, cause further environmental problems such as a decrease in air quality. 

It is also advised to recycle CNTs as recycling would lead to better waste and resource management. Also, recycling would lead to better employment prospects as well. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are carbon nanotubes biodegradable?

Are carbon nanotubes?

Yes, carbon nanotubes may act as asbestos and can release substances that can cause respiratory problems and syndromes. 

What are the best disposal methods for CNTs?

It is speculated that CNTs may release harmful substances (acting like asbestos) and therefore it is preferred that CNTs may be incinerated. The incineration may, however, cause further environmental problems such as a decrease in air quality. 

References

  • Dai, H. (2002). Carbon nanotubes: opportunities and challenges. Surface Science, 500(1-3), 218-241.
  • Boczkowski, J., & Lanone, S. (2007). Potential uses of carbon nanotubes in the medical field: how worried should patients be?
  • Liu, Y., Zhao, Y., Sun, B., & Chen, C. (2013). Understanding the toxicity of carbon nanotubes. Accounts of chemical research, 46(3), 702-713.
  • Valerio, F. (2010). Environmental impacts of post-consumer material managements: Recycling, biological treatments, incineration. Waste Management, 30(11), 2354-2361.
  • (May 19, 2008). Environment Agency Interim Advice. Retrieved from: https://nanotech.law.asu.edu/Documents/2009/08/nano-waste_199_5154.pdf

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