Published October 2013
Activated carbon is an amorphous form of elemental carbon prepared by the destructive distillation of any one of a variety of carbonaceous raw materials, including wood, coal or coconut shells. It is used as a substrate primarily to selectively adsorb gases, vapors or colloidal solids from liquids or gases. The principal commercial product forms of activated carbon are granular, powdered, extruded and fiber.
Activated carbons are important because of their adsorptive properties. The most significant physical characteristic of activated carbon is the enormous surface area of the internal pore structure developed during its preparation. Total surface areas for activated carbons commonly range from 450 square meters per gram to 1,800 square meters per gram.
Considering the variety of carbonaceous material available for producing activated carbon, the several activating processes and the available forms of activated carbon, activated carbons can be tailored to meet a broad spectrum of adsorption applications.
A new emerging use for activated carbon is in capacitors and batteries for energy applications (e.g., batteries used in hybrid vehicles). Although the energy field is a long-term application, this could be a significant market for activated carbon in the future.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of activated carbon:
The consumption of activated carbon will vary by region over the next five years. In the traditional applications (e.g., water treatment), the developed regions such as North America and Western Europe will continue to see modest to moderate growth of 2.5-3% per year. However, U.S. consumption of activated carbon during 2012-2018 is forecast to grow at an average annual rate of over 13%, driven by powdered activated carbon consumption for mercury removal from coal-fired power plants and cement kilns.
Developing regions such as Central and South America and China will see growth rates of 3-4% and 5%, respectively. In China, several water treatment projects are under way and activated carbon will play a major role.
Overall, the estimated global average annual growth rate for activated carbon will be 6.6% through 2018, driven by U.S. consumption-assuming federal compliance by U.S. coal-fired utilities to cut mercury emissions by 2018.
The activated carbon business will continue to be driven by environmental regulations, principally water and air purification, especially in the mature and more industrialized areas of the world. In the next five years, environmental issues will likely become the predominant force in the markets of rapidly developing countries, particularly China and India, as they face environmental issues.