The terms activated charcoal and activated carbon can be confusing. Many people wonder what the difference is between them. The reality is that they are interchangeable terms used to describe exactly the same thing. We have more information below:
What is charcoal?
Charcoal is a product made from wood, bamboo, or other organic substances. The wood shouldn’t be burnt like it is on a fire, but rather has to be cooked slowly, in the presence of as little oxygen as possible. Traditionally (since prehistoric times) charcoal burners working in forests did this by building and covering slow-burning piles of wood; a high level of skill was needed to make sure that the delicate burning process resulted in good quality charcoal. Nowadays the process is still much the same but it happens in concrete kilns or multi-hearth furnaces called retorts. Charcoal is used for many things besides creating odor-removing products. For example, it can be used to reduce the effect of poisons, filter distilled drinks such as gin or whiskey, and purify gold. Much more detail on Charcoal can be found on Wikipedia.
Is activated charcoal the same thing as activated carbon?
The answer to this is ambiguous.
Charcoal and carbon are not the same because carbon is the name for an element (periodic symbol C, atomic number 6). Elements are chemical substances that can’t be broken down into simpler constitute parts. When charcoal has been produced, it has a very high concentration of carbon but still contains some hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon is a very important element because lots of other elements bond with it to form different, more complex compounds. This includes carbon dioxide, which is found in the earth’s atmosphere.
Activated charcoal and activated carbon are the same because when you hear people talking about activated carbon, they are referring to something that could equally be called activated charcoal. These terms are synonymous (you could use either one and still be correct). Activated carbon and activated charcoal are both the highly porous material that is so effective in attracting and removing organic chemicals and gasses; this includes VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which emit from some household paints, preservatives and aerosol sprays.
What can we conclude from this?
We now know that charcoal is a substance produced by burning wood (or other organic substances) at slow temperatures, that carbon is an important element, and that activated charcoal and activated carbon are actually the same thing; either will do a great job of eliminating nasty odors from our homes.
If you want to find out exactly why activated charcoal or activated carbon are such efficient odor removers, there is some more information on our ‘How Does Activated Charcoal Work?’ page.