While the developed world takes access to clean, safe water for granted, developing countries are not so lucky. According to a January 2015 article on Wired.com, a shocking 2.5 billion people, or 40% of the global population, lack adequate sanitation. Roughly half of all hospital patients in the developing world are suffering from illnesses related to sanitation, and 1.5 million children die from food or waterborne diseases each year.
Fortunately, new research is constantly underway in the global effort to provide needed clean, fresh water for developing nations. Due to its remarkable purification abilities, activated carbon is playing a crucial and dynamic role in improving access to safe water.
Understanding activated carbon
Activated carbon, or activated charcoal, is created by slowly heating carbon-rich organic material, such as wood or coal, in a low-oxygen environment. This prevents it from burning and allows it to slowly dry, releasing water and impurities. The resulting char then undergoes chemical and physical treatment to increase its surface area and create a sub-microscopic system of pores. When processing is complete, one gram of activated carbon has the surface area of a football field.
How does activated carbon purify water?
Activated carbon has a remarkable ability to bind and trap a vast array of impurities including herbicides and volatile organic chemicals, removing them from the water and rendering it safe and clean. It also removes noxious compounds that can alter the taste and smell. Activated carbon is used at both the municipal level and the personal level, as well as in portable units that have traditionally been used in the developing world. However, issues of scale can arise when trying to provide enough clean, safe water for large communities. In addition, those communities continue to face the problem of how to safely dispose of sewage, which can cause continuing health problems.
Advances in Activated Carbon Technologies
There are new technologies constantly being developed to more economically treat water. One example is the Omniprocessor, which was developed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and is a novel technology that claims to have less environmental impact and is cheaper to operate than conventional treatment technologies. Activated carbon is one of the main treatment technologies that this system utilizes.
Looking Toward the Future
While the prototype OmniProcessor meets strict environmental guidelines and works as predicted under laboratory conditions, only time will tell whether it will stand up to the tough demands of real world applications. Regardless of the outcomes from this particular project, one thing stands out as clear. Activated carbon has played a critical role in water purification since antiquity, and it is likely to be a key component of any water sanitation project developed in the foreseeable future.
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