A powdered, granular, or pelleted form of amorphous carbon characterized by very large surface area per unit volume because of an enormous number of fine pores. Activated carbon is capable of collecting gases, liquids, or dissolved substances on the surface of its pores.
Adsorption on activated carbon is selective, favoring nonpolar over polar substances.
Compared with other commercial adsorbents, activated carbon has a broad spectrum of adsorptive activity, excellent physical and chemical stability, and ease of production from readily available, frequently waste materials.
Almost any carbonaceous raw material can be used for the manufacture of activated carbon. Wood, peat, and lignite are commonly used for the decolorizing materials. Bone char made by calcining bones is used in large quantity for sugar refining. Nut shells (particularly coconut), coal, petroleum coke, and other residues in either granular, briqueted, or pelleted form are used for adsorbent products.
Activation is the process of treating the carbon to open an enormous number of pores in the 1.2- to 20-nanometer-diameter range (gas-adsorbent carbon) or up to 100-nm diameter range (decolorizing carbons). After activation, the carbon has the large surface area (500-1500 m2/g) responsible for the adsorption phenomena. Carbons that have not been subjected previously to high temperatures are easiest to activate. Selective oxidation of the base carbon with steam, carbon dioxide, flue gas, or air is one method of developing the pore structure. Other methods require the mixing of chemicals, such as metal chlorides (particularly zinc chloride) or sulfides or phosphates, potassium sulfide, potassium thiocyanate, or phosphoric acid, with the carbonaceous matter, followed by calcining and washing the residue.