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May 18, 2001

ACTIVATED CARBON A ROUGH AND READY PRIMER


A non-rigorous, incomplete, and possibly innacurate summary, emphasizing aquaculture
applications. Much of the information is tentative, and corrections / additions would be
greatly appreciated.
DESCRIPTION
A/C is a filter material obtained from coal or carbonized organic matter treated so as to make
it highly porous and rid it of unwanted components. Good quality A/C may have over 0.4 ml
of pores per gram, and its total surface area may be over 1,000 m2 per gram. It has the
ability to retain large amounts (for small molecules, up to 1 g of target per g of A/C!) of
molecular-sized matter suspended in water or air, ranging from chlorine to large organic
molecules. Bulk densities of 420 to 600 Kg/m3 are mentioned.
Although plain charcoal shows some absorbtive action, A/C is supposed to be particularly
efficient (therefore cost-effective), and of course is less likely to release unwanted impurities
into the treated water or air.
MANUFACTURE
Choice of raw materials (ranging from hard coal to wood or coconut shell) will largely
determine the distribution of pore size. After preliminary sizing, volatiles are removed from
the source material by heating to around 600 C in an inert atmosphere (nitrogen) to avoid
barbecuing the mess. What remains is mostly carbon, with an irregular and constricted pore
structure. The activation process proper requires flushing with steam at around 900 C, which
will ablate part of the carbon (actual chemical reaction, presumably with evolution of CO,
CH4 and the like), creating the desired highly porous structure, its skeleton being 80 to 98%
carbon depending on information source. The pore-size distribution may also be
considerably influenced by the exact parameters of the activation process.
Binders may be added as part of the manufacturing process. The granules must also be
sized as required by target application, acid washing and proprietary processes may be
applied to enhance effectiveness for some uses.
Proper reactivation seems to be accomplished by repeating the steam-reaction process on
used A/C. Probably not worth doing it oneself for the usual amounts needed. In some cases,
plain heating is mentioned as effective; This seems to apply only to cases where the target
absorbate is quite volatile.
MODE OF ACTION
Plain mechanical filtering is one of the mechanisms involved, but most of the activity (at least
with smaller molecules) seems to be in the nature of adsorption onto the A/Cs surface by
Van der Waals forces. Plain electrostatic forces also intervene, and catalytic activity seems
to take place in some cases. Being hydrophobic, the A/C will tend to remove non-polar
substances, including organics, from water.
.
SELECTION OF PROPER TYPE

Abril 25, 2001

Pag. 2

Large surface area and high pore volume seem always to be desirable qualities. For specific
applications, some particulars must be chosen:
-

Pore size distribution: This will greatly affect the ability to take up a target impurity. The
pores are classified into micropores, mesopores and macropores. Different
manufacturers seem to use different parameters for classification of pores, the limiting
diameters for mesopores AKA transition pores ranging between 20-100 Angstroms
and 500-5,000 Angstroms. Pores smaller or larger than that range are counted as microand macropores respectively. For removal of chlorine or iodine, mostly micropores are
desired and coconut-shell A/C would likely be the choice source material; Algal toxins
such as concern us in aquaculture seem to have a molecular weight of around 1,000 and
to fit in the low mesopore range. Lignite-based A/C seems to be the choice for this
application. If light hydrocarbons are also a concern, it is likely that a second filter
(coconut-shell based A/C?) may be required.
Pore volume distribution in cm3/g of activated carbon, according to raw material (Bayati,
1993), in which Mesopores are considered to be those of 20 500 Angstrom diameter:
Micropores
Mesopores
Macropores

Coconut Shell
0.33
0.22
0.16

Bituminous Coal
0.13
0.16
0.25

Lignite
0.12
0.24
0.28

Hardness / toughness: There will be some A/C loss and granule-size reduction due to
abrasion, so in general a harder A/C is wanted. Doesnt seem to be much choice.

Granule size: Smaller granules are more efficient: a 25% reduction in granule diameter
may yield twice the efficiency (time in operation until target-retention becomes
unsatisfactory). But smaller granules can cause higher back pressure in the filters. Very
roughly, pressure drop at a given flow rate is inversely proportional to granule size. A
mesh size around 4x12 (2 to 6 mm granules) seem to be a reasonable compromise for
aquaculture applications, whereas for compact home water-treatment units, and air
filtering, smaller granuler are preferred. Uniformity matters: If there is considerable size
variation among granules, packing may result, with unacceptable back pressure and / or
loss of flow.

FILTER DESIGN
A/C filters can be clogged just as easily, or more so than other filter media, and backwashing
will cause loss to abrasion. Being the most expensive of the common media, A/C filters
should be arranged downstream of all the mechanical filters such as sand, cartridge,
diatomaceous earth, etc.
Flow rates mentioned are in the neighborhood of 60 m3/hr/m2. Presumably this would
depend on the A/C bed depth and acceptable pressure drop; A residence time of 10 to 15
seconds is the ballpark reccomendation for removal of the more common targets.
Cylindrical tanks seem to be the rule. Length to diameter ratios range from 2:1 to 5:1, and it
appears the higher ratios are most efficient. Provisions must be made for backwashing,
including meshing to prevent loss of the relatively lightweight granules.
Pressure drop seems linearly related to water-flow velocity: About 2.33 mbar per m of bed
height per m / hour of flow velocity (12x40 US Mesh particles). For proper backwash, a bed
expansion of about 30% is desirable, which would require a linear flow rate around 17 m/hr.

Abril 25, 2001

Pag. 3

These two items came from site www.activated-carbon.com/3-1 (CPL Carbon Link Ltd)
which contains further handy information.
I have not yet developed any useful information on media lifetime in actual aquaculture
applications.
TESTING - IS IT ALIVE?
Proper testing of A/C would require measurement of % removal of the target substance
under specific flow conditions. If the targets are algal toxins, this would be difficult as we
dont usually know what the exact target is. Information in this area would be particularly
welcome.
Iodine and carbon tetrachloride absortion, and molasses-decolorizing tests seem to be
standard tests in the A/C industry, but so far I have no information on protocols, and they
may not be applicable for aquaculture uses anyway (molecules too small or large,
respectively).
A quick-and-dirty test with methylene blue is the only thing I have tried so far. The molecular
weight of MB is around 320 - 370 as compared to 460 - 1500 for typical phycotoxins, and
hopefully the size (diameter, surface, whatever) and other characteristics of the molecules is
close enough that it may be a useful test. The method I used can surely be improved,
however, here goes, (feedback would be appreciated):
Soak the A/C in tap water. With new A/C, it will take a while to release air from the pores,
and some granules will float. Rinse to eliminate most of the fine dust which would complicate
reading the results.
Prepare a methylene blue solution in tap water. I used 300 ml of tap water and 6 drops of
aquarium-grade methylene blue solution (strength of solution dubious use enough to get a
definite deep blue color while retaining transparency).
Fill screw-cap test tubes (30 ml size is convenient) about of height with A/C, use an
additional test tube with no A/C as blank. Quickly fill the test tubes to about 2/3 - with the
MB solution, cap them, hold the set (4 tubes at a time is no problem) horizontally in both
hands, and rock back and forth continually so the A/C and MB solution intermingle. Rocking
30 45 degrees from horizontal, about 1.5 seconds per cycle works OK.
Within about 90 seconds, two types of new A/C (coconut-shell and lignite based) had
decolorized the MB solution, while used A/C had removed about 2/3 of the blue hue per
eyeball reading.
If the tubes are left standing the hue is eliminated quite slowly (hours), so theres not that big
a rush to reading results.
The test could be read as absolute by rocking for a measured amout of time, or it could be
made relative by rocking until a known new, good A/C has decolorized the solution, and
checking the solutions hue in companion tubes holding used or dubious A/C.
Running the MB-tinted water through a column (burette?) at a controlled rate say a
residence time of around 15 seconds would be a much more realistic simulation of what
happens in a filter.

Abril 25, 2001

Pag. 4

Quantification of the solutions transmittance by spectrophotometer proved misleading: It did


not relate well to visual comparison of the MB hue using new vs. used carbons. Selecting
various wavelengths made little difference. The problem seems to arise from suspended fine
dust, from new A/C in particular. Preparing visual-comparison standards by serial dilution of
the MB solution may be a better way, as depth of the blue hue is probably a better measure
than overall transmittance.
With old A/C, there will no doubt be some organic matter, which also takes up the MB. There
is also some adsorbtion of MB onto the tube walls (at least in used test tubes, even when
acid-washed).

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Heavy web surfing yielded hard info only slowly. Much was contributed by Dr. Ami Horowitz
and his friends ar KINETICO, Bob Spellman of Marine Enterprises Inc., and Byron Tamayo
of ADISOL. Hope I am not guilty of too much misinterpretation of the information supplied.
REFERENCES:
Bayati, M. and Wycherley, D., Know the three Cs of Carbon, Water Technology,
September 1993
Julio Estrada
Julioe@speed.net.ec