A Brief History of Activated Carbon and a Summary of Its Uses

The use of carbon extends so far back into history that its origin is impossible to document. Charcoal was used for drinking water filtration by ancient Hindus in India, and carbonized wood was used as a medical adsorbent and purifying agent by the Egyptians as early as 1500 B.C.5 Similar uses throughout history have been reported by a variety of authors.

Modern development and use has been documented more precisely. Activated carbon was first generated industrially at the first part of the twentieth century, when carbon activated from vegetable material was produced for use in sugar refining.3

Powdered activated carbon was first produced commercially in Europe in the early 19th century, using wood as a raw material. This carbon found widespread use in the sugar industry. In the United States, the first production of activated carbon used black ash as the source, after it was accidentally discovered that the ash was very effective in decolorizing liquids. 12 Activated carbon has since been used extensively for this purpose in many industries. In particular, it has been commonly used for the removal of organic dyes from textile wastewaters.

The first documented use of activated carbon in a large scale water treatment application was in 19th-century England, where it was used to remove undesirable odors and tastes from drinking water.5 Use in the United States for similar purposes closely followed. In recent years, the use of activated carbon for the removal of priority organic pollutants has become very common. Today, hundreds of brands of activated carbon are manufactured for a large variety of purposes.

The largest market for activated carbon is currently in the municipal water purification industry, where charcoal beds have been used for the dual purpose of physical filtration and sorption.12 In fact, activated carbon filters are used today in drinking water treatment to remove the natural organic compounds (i.e. tannins) that produce carcinogenic chlorinated by-products during chlorine disinfection of water. In wastewater treatment, activated carbon is usually used as a filter medium in tertiary treatment processes. In these applications, carbon filters are usually quite effective in removing low concentrations of organic compounds, as well as some inorganic metals.

In addition to its drinking water and wastewater treatment applications, activated carbon is used today for many other purposes. Some other common uses are listed here: corn and cane sugar refining, gas adsorption, dry cleaning recovery processes, pharmaceuticals, fat and oil removal, electroplating, alcoholic beverage production.12

A Definition of Activated Carbon