The activated charcoal industry might be booming over the past decade, with people using it for uses such as teeth whitening and blackhead face masks, however it’s far from a new product. In fact, it was used all the way back in 3750 BC by ancient Egyptians.
There is much we still don’t understand about the ancient Egyptians, such as how the Pyramids were truly built, however one thing we know is that they used it by smelting ores to create bronze. But it didn’t stop there, over time the Egyptians use of this material continued to evolve, with it eventually being used to absorb and remove any nasty smells, something we use it for now. Not bad for an ancient civilisation!
Beyond this, the Egyptians also used it help cure intestinal issues, disorders and illnesses, such as constipation, bloating and irritable bowel syndrome, among the long list.
We also know the Egyptians love for preserving the dead (who hasn’t seen the mummy), well they used activated charcoal to help preserve them, as it helped to remove oxygen completely.
Over in Ancient Greece, they were also using activated charcoal to cure food poisoning, as it became more common place as a toxin remover.
So the signs of early usage was there to see, but the next big step wasn’t until 400 BC, when the ancient Hindus and Phoenicians came across an amazing use for this black powder, as a way to purify water. Still used today in most water purifiers, this was an absolute gem of a find. It helped with its antiseptic properties and removed bacteria lurking in dirty water, which was a big killer back in the day (it still is for that matter).
If they were to go on a long sea voyage, attempting to trade or find new land, they would often char barrels to help keep water decent for long periods of time. This practice lasted the test of time, with Christopher Columbus also adopting the trick when venturing and finding America.
In 50 AD it began to be used as a form of medicine, largely for people suffering from epilepsy or chlorosis, however it was also experimented on for a number of illnesses.
Despite its strong use, it had an extended quiet period through the dark ages (where religious oppression meant a sharp decline in scientific thought. But its re-emergence in the 1700’s and 1800’s was glorious, with doctors and chemists using it for multiple medical purposes. It was also found during this period that it could be used as a decolouring agent, which was a big boost for the sugar industry, where they wanted to offer a more white sugar to illustrate quality.
This spread like wildfire, with all of Europe using this tactic to whiten sugar by the early 1800’s. It became the source of many investigations by scientists, managing to actually save a life of someone who ingested mercury bichloride, which was documented and used as a case study of its potential life saving attributes.
In the 1900’s, they started experimenting with this magic black powder being used in more items outside of medicine, such as in toothpastes and biscuits.
The issue at the time was around refining, so this became the focus, to offer a more pure, high grade version, in order to improve the absorptive powers. Activated charcoal began to be used to remove poison from the body, such as by snake bites, with it being used by medics in the 20th century, but still not widely accepted as the go-to material until much later. Of course, now every ambulance and hospital has some in store in case someone reports a poison attack as it should help to absorb the poison and prevent it from spreading further.
Now we see activated charcoal being used on airplanes, in air and water purifiers, in multiple beauty products and we are merely scratching the surface of what it could be used for. It is exciting to imagine the possibilities, while we will endeavour to always be at the forefront of scientific creations around this magnificent black powder.