Activated Charcoal

By Tabitha Mishra
Last updated: December 16, 2022

What Does Activated Charcoal Mean?

Activated charcoal is a form of processed carbon with a random, imperfect structure. It is highly porous, which allows it to attract and trap organic chemicals. This makes it useful in the treatment of drug overdoses and certain cases where a harmful substance has been ingested, since drugs and toxins that have been swallowed can bind to the charcoal, preventing them from being absorbed into the body.

Activated charcoal is a crude form of graphite. Unlike graphite, it does not have a uniform structure but has cracks, crevices, and microscopic pores. It has the strongest physical adsorption forces of any material and can have a surface area greater than 1,000 m2/g.

Activated charcoal is also known as activated carbon.

Safeopedia Explains Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal that is used to treat the ingestion of toxins can be mixed with sorbitol. This additive has a laxative effect, which helps evacuate the drug or poisonous substance from the body.

First Aid Involving Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal should be included in first aid kits wherever there is a known risk of employees accidentally ingesting toxic or poisonous substances. The charcoal powder must be mixed with water or another beverage so it can be swallowed.

Since it works by preventing the ingested substance from being absorbed into the body, the sooner activated charcoal is swallowed, the more effective it will be. Despite this, it is advisable to contact Poison Control before administering activated charcoal to ensure that it is an appropriate treatment for the specific case.

Activated charcoal is not effective in cases of poisoning caused by the ingestion of alcohol or corrosive agents. Some people will also experience nausea or vomiting after taking activated charcoal.

Manufacturing Activated Charcoal

Creating activated charcoal requires a carbonaceous source such as coal, peat, wood, or coconut shell. Pure carbon is extracted from these materials using a heating process known as pyrolysis. At the end of the process, mostly carbon and a small amount of inorganic ash remain.

The carbon is then activated by treating it with oxygen, which is done in one of two ways:

  • Gas treatment: For oxidation by gas treatment, pyrolysis must occur in an inert environment at 600 to 900°C. The oxygenated gas is then pumped in and heated between 900 and 1200°C, enabling the oxygen to bind to the surface of the carbon.
  • Chemical treatment: The material is submerged in a bath of acid, base, or other chemicals and then heated to temperatures from 450 to 900°C. The process is quicker than gas activation; however, there are chances of trace elements adsorbing to the carbon resulting in impure and potentially less effective activated charcoal.

Forms of Activated Charcoal

There are multiple types of activated charcoal. Which one is produced will depend on the source material and the processing method used.

The main forms of activated charcoal are:

  • Powdered activated carbon (PAC) with particle sizes ranging from 5 to 150 Å, typically used in liquid-phase adsorption applications
  • Granular activated carbon (GAC) with particle sizes ranging of 0.2 mm to 5 mm, used in both gas and liquid phase applications
  • Extruded activated carbon (EAC) with cylindrical pellet sizes ranging from 1 mm to 5 mm, typically used in gas phase reactions
  • Other types, including bead-activated carbon (BAC), impregnated carbon, polymer-coated carbon, activated carbon cloths, and activated carbon fibers

Other Applications of Activated Charcoal

In addition to treating drug intoxication and poisoning, activated charcoal also has a variety of applications:

  • Water purification
  • Air purification and deodorization
  • Sugar refining
  • Vegetable oil purification
  • Removing the color and odor from alcohol distillate
  • Maximizing gold yield when extracting it from its ore


Activated Carbon

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