The Discovery and History of Activated Carbon

The actual “discovery” of charcoal was likely long before the first recorded use of the substance in about 3750 B.C. Because charcoal burns hotter than wood, it was often used for melting and combining metals in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians eventually discovered that charcoal had antibacterial properties when they realized that charred wooden posts didn’t rot when placed into the Nile for the purpose of building docks. This discovery led to continued use of charcoal in Egyptian medical, embalming and burial practices.

The Development of Medicinal Uses of Charcoal

Around 1500 B.C., we see the first written record of medicinal use of charcoal. The Egyptians primarily used charcoal for treating the unpleasant scent that emanated from festering wounds. Archaeologists have found that the first records of using charcoal for water treatment appear about a thousand years later, in 400 B.C. These records show up in several cultures, mostly of peoples who travelled by ship: sailors would char the inside of water barrels to purify and preserve the water for long ocean voyages. Additionally, a paste of charcoal tar was often used for sealing up leaks and holes in ships.

Several early, groundbreaking physicians of this time, such as Hippocrates, used charcoal to treat a variety of ailments such as epilepsy (a seizure disorder), iron deficiencies, dizziness and even bacterial diseases like anthrax. Hundreds of years after Hippocrates’ time, the physician Pliney wrote of the fascinating way charcoal gains medicinal properties after being burned. Claudius Galen, a pioneering and famous physician and scientist in the second century, regularly referenced his use of charcoal to treat disease.

Discovering the Decoloration Properties of Charcoal

Throughout the following several thousand years, charcoal was used regularly for its antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Towards the end of the 18th century, scientists started to pursue research of this fascinating substance with a renewed vigor. In 1776, Russian chemist Johann Lowitz discovered the initial decoloration properties of charcoal in liquid—a characteristic that makes activated charcoal water filters a popular choice even today. An English sugar factory then built upon this research a couple of decades later and discovered you could use charcoal to decolor sugar, a solid substance.

This development was very significant because a burgeoning industry—the sugar trade—was now invested in the research and development of carbon. Sugar refineries were seeking a way to make their raw and grainy product more visually appealing to consumers and charcoal made that possible. It could be argued that without the discovery of carbon’s use a decoloring agent, its possible that the activating process for carbon might never have been discovered.

Modern Developments in Activated Charcoal Use

In the early 1800s, the process for activating carbon was officially discovered. This process led to the widely accepted use of activated carbon as a treatment for poison, and it was popular in the early 19th century for scientists to prove this by swallowing arsenic and charcoal together.

In 1881, an important term was coined by physicist Heinrich Kayser. Kayser used the word “adsorption” to describe the process of atoms or molecules from a gaseous, liquid or dissolved solid subtance attaching themselves to a surface and creating a film on the substance. Kayser started using the term to describe how charcoal could “adsorb” gases. While the process had been discovered years earlier (specifically in an experiment using coconut shell carbon!), Kayser is credited with the word.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the commercial manufacture of carbon was prevalent. Common uses in this time period included carbon solutions used for food and chemical decoloration and the use of activated carbon in gas masks to protect soldiers from chemical weapons.

A Historically Proven Resource

Activated carbon has a long and productive history among mankind. Its uses are many and varied and research continues to support this material’s miraculous ability to cleanse and detoxify.