is performed on a cyclic basis by purging it with steam or heated nitrogen.

Gasoline Emission Control

A principal application of activated carbon is in the capture of gasoline vapors that escape from vents in automotive fuel systems (76). Under EPA regulations, all U.S. motor vehicles produced since the early 1970s have been equipped with evaporative emission control systems. Most other auto-producing countries now have similar controls. Fuel vapors vented when the fuel tank or carburetor are heated are captured in a canister containing 0.5-2 L of activated carbon. Regeneration of the carbon is then accomplished by using intake manifold vacuum to draw air through the canister. The air carries desorbed vapor into the engine where it is burned during normal operation. Activated carbon systems have also been proposed for capturing vapors emitted during vehicle refueling, and activated carbon is used at many gasoline terminals to capture vapor displaced when tank trucks are filled (77). Typically, the adsorption vessels contain around 15 m3 of activated carbon and are regenerated by application of a vacuum. The vapor that is pumped off is recovered in an absorber by contact with liquid gasoline. Similar equipment is used in the transfer of fuel from barges (78). The type of carbon pore structure required for these applications is substantially different from that used in solvent recovery. Because the regeneration conditions are very mild, only the weaker adsorption forces can be overcome, and therefore the most effective pores are in the mesopore size range (79). A large adsorption capacity in these pores is possible because vapor concentrations are high, typically 10-60%.

Adsorption of Radionuclides

Other applications that depend on physical adsorption include the control of krypton and xenon radionuclides from nuclear power plants (80). The gases are not captured entirely, but their passage is delayed long enough to allow radioactive decay of the short-lived species. Highly micro-porous coconut-based activated carbon is used for this service.

Control by Chemical Reaction

Pick-up of gases to prevent emissions can also depend on the chemical properties of activated carbon or of impregnants. Emergency protection against radioiodine emissions from nuclear power reactors is provided by isotope exchange over activated carbon impregnated with potassium iodide (81). Oxidation reactions catalyzed by the carbon surface are the basis for several emission control strategies. Sulfur dioxide can be removed from industrial off-gases and power plant flue gas because it is oxidized to sulfur trioxide, which reacts with water to form nonvolatile sulfuric acid (82,83). Hydrogen sulfide can be removed from such sources as Claus plant tail gas because it is converted to sulfur in the presence of oxygen (84). Nitric oxide can be removed from flue gas because it is oxidized to nitrogen dioxide. Ammonia is added and reacts catalytically on the carbon surface with the nitrogen dioxide to form nitrogen (85).

Protection against Atmospheric Contaminants

Activated carbon is widely used to filter breathing air to protect against a variety of toxic or noxious vapors, including war gases, industrial chemicals, solvents, and odorous compounds. Activated carbons for this purpose are highly microporous and thus maximize the adsorption forces that hold adsorbate molecules on the surface. Although activated carbon can give protection against most organic gases, it is especially effective against high molecular weight vapors, including chemical warfare agents such as mustard gas or the nerve agents that are toxic at parts per million concentrations. The activated carbon is employed in individual canisters or pads, as in gas masks, or in large filters in forced air ventilation systems. In air-conditioning systems, adsorption on activated carbon can be used to control the buildup of odors or toxic gases such as radon in recirculated air (86).

Inorganic vapors are usually not strongly adsorbed on activated carbon by physical forces, but protection against many toxic agents is achieved by using activated carbon impregnated with specific reactants or decomposition catalysts. For example, a combination of chromium and copper impregnants is used against hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen, and cyanogen chloride, whereas silver assists in the removal of arsine. All of these are potential chemical warfare agents; the Whetlerite carbon, which was developed in the early 1940s and is still used in military protective filters, contains these impregnants (87). Recent work has shown that chromium, which loses effectiveness with age and is itself toxic, can be replaced with a combination of molybdenum and triethylenediamine (88). Oxides of iron and zinc on activated carbon have been used in cigarette filters to absorb hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulfide (89). Mercury vapor in air can be removed by activated carbon impregnated with sulfur (90). Activated carbon impregnated with sodium or potassium hydroxide has long been used to control odors of hydrogen sulfide and organic mercaptans in sewage treatment plants (91). Alkali-impregnated carbon is also effective against sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and chlorine at low concentrations. Such impregnated carbon is used extensively to protect sensitive electronic equipment against corrosion by these gases in industrial environments (92).

Process Stream Separations

Differences in adsorptivity between gases provides a means for separating components in industrial process gas streams. Activated carbon in fixed beds has been used to separate aromatic compounds from lighter vapors in petroleum refining process streams (93) and to recover gasoline components from natural and manufactured gas (94,95).

Molecular sieve activated carbons are specially made with restricted openings leading to micropores. These adsorbents are finding increasing use in separations utilizing pressure swing adsorption, in which adsorption is enhanced by operation at high pressure and desorption occurs upon depressurization (96). Larger molecules are restricted from entrance into the pores of these carbons and, therefore, are not retained as strongly as smaller mole cules. The target product can be either the adsorbed or unadsorbed gases. Examples include separation of oxygen from air and recovery of methane from inorganic gases in biogas production. Hydrogen can be removed from gases produced in the catalytic cracking of gasoline, and carbon monoxide can be separated from fuel gases. Use of pressure swing techniques for gas separation is an area of growing interest in engineering research.

The hypersorption process developed in the late 1940s used a bed of activated carbon moving countercurrent to gas flow to separate light hydrocarbons from each other and from hydrogen in refinery operations. The application is of interest because of its scale, treating up to 20,000 m3/h of gas, but the plants were shut down within a few years, probably because of problems related to attrition of the rapidly circulating activated carbon (97). It should be noted, however, that in recent years moving-bed and fluid-bed adsorption equipment using activated carbon has been successfully employed for solvent recovery (98).

Gas Storage

Adsorption forces acting on gas molecules held in micropores significantly densify the adsorbed material. As a result, activated carbon has long been considered a medium for lowering the pressure required to store weakly adsorbed compressed gases (99). Recent work with modern high-capacity carbons has been directed toward fueling passenger cars with natural gas, but storage volume targets have not yet been attained (100). Natural gas storage on activated carbon is now used commercially in portable welding cylinders (101). These can be refilled easily at about 2,000 kPa and hold as much gas as a conventional cylinder pressurized to 6,000 kPa (59 atm).


Catalytic properties of the activated carbon surface are useful in both inorganic and organic synthesis. For example, the fumigant sulfuryl fluoride is made by reaction of sulfur dioxide with hydrogen fluoride and fluorine over activated carbon (102). Activated carbon also catalyzes the addition of halogens across a carbon-carbon double bond in the production of a variety of organic halides (73) and is used in the production of phosgene from carbon monoxide and chlorine (103,104).

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