Burn any animal or vegetable matter with a limited supply of air, as is the case inside a wood pile, and you are left with charcoal, essentially carbon mixed with some mineral ash. The fact that charcoal burns better than wood was probably noted soon after man learned to control fire over a million years ago. The first use of charcoal for purposes other than providing heat was around 30,000 BC when cavemen used it as a pigment for drawing on the walls of caves.
Then around 4000 BC came a monumental discovery, probably by accident, when a piece of ore fell into a charcoal fire and began to ooze metal. When naturally occurring ores of copper, zinc and tin oxides are heated with charcoal, the carbon strips away the oxygen, leaving the pure metal behind. Alloying copper with tin forms bronze. The Bronze Age was followed by the Iron Age, characterized by the smelting of iron from iron oxide with charcoal. That same technology is still used today. But it wasn’t only through the smelting of metals that charcoal had an impact on history.
Sometime in the 9th century a Chinese alchemist discovered that blending charcoal with saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and sulphur resulted in a mixture that would combust readily. “Gunpowder” would eventually be used to create explosives that gave access to coal and minerals, making huge engineering achievements possible. Of course gunpowder also made possible the easier destruction of life, casting a dark shadow on charcoal.
Around 1500 BC, Egyptian papyri recorded the use of charcoal to eliminate bad smells from wounds, the first mention of a medical application of charcoal. By 400 BC, the Phoenicians were storing water in charred barrels on trading ships to improve its taste. It seems they had hit upon one of charcoal’s most important properties, the ability to bind substances to its surface, a phenomenon known as “adsorption.” That application lay more or less dormant until the late 18th century, when Europeans developed a taste for sugar. Raw sugar from sugar cane or sugar beets is tainted by coloured impurities that can be removed by passing sugar extract through beds of charcoal.
The rapid growth of the sugar refining industry led to a search for charcoal with improved adsorption properties and resulted in the development of “activated” charcoal, also referred to as “activated carbon.” In this process, carbonaceous matter such as wood, coal or nutshells is first heated in the absence of air, followed by exposure to carbon dioxide, oxygen or steam. This has the effect of increasing the surface area and establishing a network of submicroscopic pores where adsorption takes place. Later, it was determined that impregnation with chemicals like zinc chloride or phosphoric acid prior to heating improved the adsorption properties. Today, a variety of activated carbon products are available for use in various applications.
Activated charcoal is used in water filters, air purification systems, gas masks and even underwear. Yes, flatulence filtering undergarment for people suffering from various gastric problems really works. But in order to avoid flatulence escaping around the filter, the patient is recommended to stand with legs together and let the wind out slowly.
Because of its amazing adsorptive properties, activated carbon is a staple in emergency rooms. In cases of suspected drug overdose or poisoning, it is administered orally to bind the toxins before they have a chance to be absorbed into the bloodstream. It isn’t surprising that inventive marketers have absorbed this information and have started to roll out various foods and beverages containing activated carbon with promises of “detoxing.” “Black Magic Activated Charcoal” a “zesty lemon detox and purification elixir,” invites you to “come over to the dark side.” A very apropos invitation. Just what sorts of toxins are this beverage supposed to remove? And since activated carbon isn’t very specific in what it adsorbs, it is as likely to remove vitamins, polyphenols and medications as those unnamed toxins. Of course it is made with “alkaline water,” catering to the nonsense that cancer is caused by an acidic pH. Any alkaline water is of course immediately neutralized by stomach acid. Believe it or not, you can also get “activated carbon ramen noodles.” The only thing these will eliminate is your appetite.