Difference Between Activated Carbon And Charcoal

Activated carbon and charcoal are two substances that have been used for centuries to filter liquids and gases. They both offer superior absorption capabilities; however, activated carbon is a more advanced material than charcoal, allowing it to absorb much smaller particles.

What Is Charcoal?

Charcoal is a black material made by heating wood or other materials without oxygen. It is similar to coal but without some of its impurities. Charcoal has many uses, including fuel for grilling and other cooking needs, in water filters and medical treatments, and even as an art medium.

What Is Activated Carbon?

Activated carbon is a form of carbon processed to create millions of tiny pores between carbon atoms. This improves the surface area for chemical reactions, adsorption, and absorption. Activated carbon removes pollutants from air or water streams in industrial processes and consumer products such as water filters.

Difference Between Activated Carbon And Charcoal

  • Process: Both activated carbon and charcoal are made from organic materials such as wood, coconut shells, coal, etc. The main difference between them is the process used to create them. Activated carbon is produced by a process known as activation, which involves exposing the material at very high temperatures with steam or chemicals in an oxygen-free environment. This process modifies the material and increases its surface area, making it highly porous and adsorbent. Charcoal has a less intricate production process; it is produced by burning wood or other organic materials in an airtight container with no oxygen.
  • Properties: Activated carbon is known for its high adsorption capacity due to its larger surface area, while charcoal has a lower adsorption capacity. In addition, activated carbon is more efficient than charcoal when it comes to filtering out impurities from water and air, making it the preferred choice for industrial and commercial applications. Charcoal is primarily used in culinary and food preparation processes.
  • Heating temperature: Activated carbon is produced by heating the material at 800-1000°C, while charcoal is produced by burning wood or other materials at about 400-500°C.
  • Composition: Activated carbon is an amorphous carbonaceous material consisting of several thousand different organic compounds, whereas charcoal consists primarily of simple hydrocarbons.
  • Surface area: Activated carbon has a larger surface area – about 1000-2000 m2/g – than charcoal, which usually has a surface area of 10-50 m2/g.
  • Porosity: Activated carbon contains interconnected pores of various sizes and shapes, whereas charcoal is less porous.
  • Nature: Activated Carbon is a form of carbon processed with tiny, low-volume pores that increase the surface area available for adsorption or chemical reactions. It can filter solids and fluids and is sometimes used in air purification systems. On the other hand, charcoal is a naturally-occurring material made from burning wood, plants, and other organic materials at high temperatures without oxygen.
  • Uses: Activated Carbon is widely used in many different industrial applications. It can be used to remove impurities from water for drinking or swimming pools, as well as for filtering emissions from factories or power plants. Charcoal is also commonly used for various purposes, including in water filtration systems, in certain types of soil amendments, and as fuel.

Types Of Activated Carbon

  • Granulated Activated Carbon: Granulated activated carbon (GAC) is a form of activated carbon with a relatively large particle size, making it ideal for filter use. GAC can be used to remove organic compounds from liquids and gases.
  • Powdered Activated Carbon: Powdered activated carbon (PAC) is a highly porous material with a complex network of microscopic pores. Its large surface area makes it very effective at absorbing and trapping impurities from water, air, and other gases. It’s made by heating organic materials such as coal, wood, coconut shells, or peat without oxygen until charred. The charcoal is treated with oxygen to open the pores and expand its surface area. It’s often used in water filtration systems, air purifiers, medical respirators, and industrial applications.
  • Pelletized Activated Carbon: Pelletised activated carbon is a form of activated carbon known for its high absorption and adsorption capacity. It is made from coal or other organic materials treated with oxidizing agents to create a porous structure. Pelletized activated carbon has an extra step of being compressed into small, cylindrical pellets, making it easier to use in applications such as water filtration.
  • Wood-based activated carbons: Wood-based activated carbons are produced by steam activation. This type of carbon is usually more porous and has a larger surface area than charcoal. It can absorb toxic compounds such as pesticides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other hazardous materials from water or air.

Types Of Charcoal

  • Lump charcoal: Lump charcoal is made by burning hardwood logs in an oxygen-free chamber. This process results in a product that burns hotter and longer than other forms of charcoal, making it ideal for grilling or smoking.
  • Extruded charcoal: This is a compact and denser form of charcoal. It comprises pure, natural biomass and contains no additives or other materials. For smoking food and water purification, extruded charcoal can adsorb impurities from liquids but has limited absorbency regarding gas-phase compounds.
  • Japanese charcoal: Known for its higher level of absorbency compared to that of activated carbon, Japanese charcoal is made from wood sources like bamboo or oak. It has a remarkable ability to bind with pollutants and remove them from the air, making it an effective air purifier.
  • Briquettes: Briquettes are made from charcoal, coal dust, and a binder such as clay. They produce more heat than charcoal and have a longer burning time.


Is charcoal similar to carbon?

Charcoal and activated carbon are related materials, though their physical properties and intended uses differ.

When should I take activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal is often used to treat poisoning, drug overdoses, and other medical conditions such as indigestion, gas, and cholesterol. Activated charcoal can be administered orally or in various forms, including tablets, capsules, powders, and liquids.

Are there side effects of taking activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal is generally considered safe for most people when used as directed. However, there are some side effects to be aware of. Common side effects may include constipation, black stools, or vomiting. More severe side effects may include a blockage in the intestine and an allergic reaction.


difference between activated carbon and charcoal - infographic
difference between activated carbon and charcoal – infographic

Activated carbon and charcoal are very different materials, although they are often confused. Charcoal is much less efficient at removing pollutants from the air than activated carbon, so it should not be used for water filtration or air purification. On the other hand, activated carbon is highly effective and cost-efficient, making it an ideal choice for various industrial applications. Ultimately, activated carbon is the superior material for purifying air or water and, therefore, should be considered first when selecting a filtration system or air purifier.

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