Is activated charcoal biodegradable? (5 characteristics of activated charcoal) 

In this article, the biodegradability of activated charcoal shall be discussed. Other topics that will be shed light on are: 

  • What is activated charcoal?
  • How does activated charcoal function?
  • What are the applications of activated charcoal?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • What is the classification of waste based on biodegradability?
  • Is activated charcoal biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Is activated charcoal biodegradable?

Yes, activated charcoal is biodegradable. Activated charcoal is made from natural materials like coal, coconut shells and wood pulp. It is then heated at a high temperature while treating it with oxygen. Therefore, it can be degraded by the action of microbes. 

It is a black, odourless, flavourless and porous substance that is widely used in medicinal applications like reducing cholesterol levels, nephrological functions, and treatment of drug overdose. 

What is activated charcoal? (5 characteristics of activated charcoal) 

A proper introduction to activated charcoal is very important before any stance can be established on the biodegradability of activated charcoal. 

This is because biodegradability depends on the very nature of materials and substances used to make up a product. If a product is made from natural materials then chances are that it will be biodegradable. 

However, if a material is not made from natural materials. Rather it is constituted from synthetic materials, then chances are that the product will not be biodegradable. Therefore, let us introduce what activated charcoal is. 

Activated charcoal is a powdery substance that has proven to be medicinally useful not only in today’s times but also in ancient times. 

Activated charcoal has been used by people of all ages after recognising its medicinal and pharmaceutical applications and advantages. 

If we speak about its natural characteristics, then those will be: 

  • Odourless
  • Black coloured
  • Flavourless
  • Powdery substance 
  • Porous 

We just spoke about the medicinal applications of activated charcoal. Some of the major applications include: 

  • Balanced cholesterol level
  • Better kidney function
  • Anti-poison treatment  
  • Whiter teeth 
  • Water filtration 
  • Curing of hangovers 

Obviously, these are some of the few uses of activated charcoal. More uses and further details will be covered in the further sections of the article. 

If we speak about the production of activated charcoal, it is produced when charcoal is treated with oxygen at a very high temperature. This is where the word ‘activated’ enters the picture. The process is also responsible for making activated charcoal porous in its nature. 

How does activated charcoal function?

It already has been prognosticated that there are numerous health benefits and applications of activated charcoal. And not just that, these benefits and applications have been acknowledged by people of all times. 

You may wonder what is the reason behind these functions of activated charcoal. In other words, what processes are involved that make activated charcoal well-established in the medical industry. 

If I were to summarise the whole story in one word, then the word would be ‘adsorption’. Now, this word might ring some bells. You may also gather that there is a very similar word ‘absorption’ that is most commonly used these days. 

Are both the words the same? What is the science behind these two words? For this, consider an imaginative visualisation. 

Imagine that you just dropped a cup of coffee onto the floor. It is spilt everywhere. You have to clean it up before anyone sees you. If you use tissue paper to clean the spill, it would be absorption. 

However, if you use a simple plain paper to clean the spill, then it would be adsorption. As you can guess, adsorption is restricted to the outer surface whereas absorption gets into the surface. 

Activated charcoal, given its porous nature, makes use of this very fundamental process of adsorption that gives it detoxifying properties. 

The porous nature of activated charcoal is there because it is made when charcoal is treated with oxygen at very high temperatures. 

What are the applications of activated charcoal?

In this section, the applications of activated charcoal will be discussed and deliberated in detail. 

One of the mentioned applications of activated charcoal is its ability to reduce cholesterol levels. As per research, activated charcoal may bind with cholesterol and acids that contain cholesterol and thus preventing them from being absorbed into the human system. 

If cholesterol is prevented from entering and being absorbed in human systems by the action of activated charcoal then it means that cholesterol levels will remain within the limits and will not cause harm to the human body. 

In a recent study, it was found that by taking 24 grams of activated charcoal for a certain period of time resulted in a decrease in cholesterol levels by 25%. 

Another stated function of activated charcoal was the promotion of kidney function. As you may know, the kidney is all about filtration. The kidney is responsible for the filtration of harmful substances which may otherwise enter the bloodstream and cause great harm.

Activated charcoal is used as great complementation to the function of kidneys because activated charcoal is also involved in the filtration and purification processes. 

Activated charcoal may bind with waste and harmful materials such as urea or toxins and thus facilitate the function of kidneys. This is very important for people with kidney diseases or those who have acute or chronic renal failure. 

The ability of activated charcoal to remove the toxins from your bloodstream by binding with them has been well-researched. 

Perhaps one of the most stood out functions of activated charcoal is emergency poison treatment. That is because activated charcoal has the ability to bind with a large variety of drugs and toxins, thus reducing their effect. 

The applications of activated charcoal are also well-understood when it comes to treating people with the issues of overdoses. It is researched that if activated charcoal is taken within the initial hours of an overdose, more than two-thirds of the drug’s effects can be alleviated in this way. 

It has also been stated that the use of activated charcoal is not just limited to the current age of science and medicine. Rather, the use of activated charcoal dates back to ancient times as well. 

It is documented that activated charcoal has been under use as early as 3700 BC when it was used by the Egyptians to make bronze. By 1500 BC, the medicinal applications of activated charcoal had been recognised and were used to treat various ailments. 

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be explained as a process through which complex waste is broken down into simple waste. This conversion is brought about by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, and yeast. 

These microbes break down complex waste into simpler materials so that these simple materials may become a part of nature again. Therefore, it can be said that biodegradability is nature’s way to ensure that there is no waste accumulation. 

This is important because if there is waste accumulation, there will be dirt and pollution everywhere. Imagine if there is no dustbin in your house and you have no place to dispose of your waste. 

What do you think will happen? Your house will get dirty, right? The same is the case with our planet earth. Biodegradability can be stated as nature’s dustbin, and if there is no dustbin, there will be dirt and pollution. 

Now, proceeding with the analogy, consider that you are not able to dispose of waste from your house for a hundred years. You may assume that not being able to do so simply means that your house will become unlivable. 

The same is the case if there is no biodegradability. No biodegradability means that waste accumulated will persist for many hundred years and this will make our Earth unlivable. It will steal the Earth’s capacity to sustain and support life, pushing all the species towards the vicinity of extinction. 

What is the classification of waste based on biodegradability?

Based on biodegradability, waste can be categorised into two classes. These are: 

  • Biodegradable waste 
  • Non-biodegradable waste

Biodegradable waste is the waste that can be degraded by the action of microbes. Examples of this waste may be food waste, animal waste, plant waste, crop waste, agricultural waste, manure, sewage et cetera. 

This waste will be degraded in a short span of time. From some days to a few months. In some cases, however, biodegradable waste may also take up to 3 years to degrade. As it is seen in the case of bioplastics. 

The other type of waste is non-biodegradable waste. This waste can not be degraded by the action of microbes because microbes are unable to break down the structure of non-biodegradable waste. As a result, this waste may persist in the environment for as long as a thousand years. 

Examples of non-biodegradable waste may be nuclear waste, hazardous waste, synthetic polymers, synthetic resins, synthetic textiles et cetera. 

Is activated charcoal biodegradable?

It has been discussed that for a product or material to be biodegradable, it must be made from natural materials and non-synthetic materials. It also has been discussed that synthetic materials can not be degraded by the action of microbes.

Let us talk about the composition of activated charcoal. It is made from natural materials like coal, coconut shells and wood pulp. It is then heated at a high temperature while treating it with oxygen. 

It, therefore, can be assumed and finalised that activated charcoal is indeed biodegradable because it does not contain any synthetic materials that are synthesised in the lab. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that activated charcoal is made from natural materials like coal, coconut shells and wood pulp. It is then heated at a high temperature while treating it with oxygen. Therefore, it can be degraded by the action of microbes. 

It is a black, odourless, flavourless and porous substance that is widely used in medicinal applications like reducing cholesterol levels, nephrological functions, and treatment of drug overdose. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is activated charcoal biodegradable?

How long has activated charcoal been used?

Activated charcoal has been used for as long as 3700 BC when it was used by the Egyptians to make bronze.

Are there any health risks of activated charcoal?

There are no reported health risks of activated charcoal. However, it is warned that its use must be balanced and supervised. Overuse may create medical anomalies which may reciprocate into serious issues. 

References: 

  • Mohammad-Khah, A., & Ansari, R. (2009). Activated charcoal: preparation, characterization and applications: a review article. Int J Chem Tech Res, 1(4), 859-864.
  • Dagley, S. (1978). Determinants of biodegradability. Quarterly reviews of biophysics, 11(4), 577-602.

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