PlanetSustainability

For a long time in the western world our only exposure to coconuts was eating them in macaroons or throwing one at a coconut shy. Today, coconut is becoming increasingly prominent and we’re seeing more and more coconut based products appear on our shelves.

Did you know coconut is also used to create our activated carbon products too? Some of which you may even be using yourself!

This article explains how Jacobi takes the humble coconut and creates activated carbon with it, as well as covering some FAQs relating to this little known process. But first, what exactly does coconut based activated carbon do?

Who uses carbon made from coconuts and what for?
Carbon made from coconuts isn’t often used in large scale industrial operations, simply because it’s not well-suited to these applications. The only large scale process it’s used in is gold recovery. The main markets are respiratory equipment, cabin air filters for cars and home air or water filters. Public concern for good air and water quality in their homes is on the increase and so these markets are continually growing.

How do we create carbon from a coconut?
Activated carbon is made from the shell husk of the coconut, all the other parts are used by different industries. The coconut falls from the tree, is stripped of all its other components and the husk is leftover. Then, it is either purchased by commercial charcoal operations or it goes back to the farmers to be used in cooperatives. If this happens, the farmers will often burn the husk in steel drums and then use the charcoal to cook with. If it’s being sold to commercial charcoal operations then it is burned on a larger scale and for a longer time.

As with all of our processes, we are working towards making this process as environmentally friendly as possible. We currently have several EcoGreen Furnaces in place and are looking to implement them with as many of our suppliers as we can. These specially designed furnaces ensure that no heat is wasted and that any nasty gases (including dangerous carbon monoxide) are burned off and not released into the environment.

Once it’s been burned, the shell looks almost exactly the same as it did previously – it’s just a little lighter in colour. We then crush it to make it the right size for whichever application it’s needed for. After crushing it needs to be sieved and then the final stage is washing. This isn’t needed for every application, however, some customers may require high purity carbon, so we’ll wash it with water or acid to remove soluble compounds. Alternatively, it might need to be washed with certain chemicals (this is the case if the carbon will be used to treat sewage, for example). There are lots of refinements that can be and are made to customise the carbon to our customers’ requirements. The carbon is now microporous, meaning it’s covered in tiny pores that can’t be seen by microscope and we can even alter the size of these pores if our customer needs it.

This whole process is usually finished (meaning the product has been converted from coconut shell to activated carbon that’s ready for sale) within three months.

What happens to the rest of the coconut?
The shell that we use to create carbon is actually a waste product from the harvesting of coconuts. When a coconut falls from the tree it’s about the size of two footballs and has several parts. The coir, or coconut fibre, is most of it. This is removed from the outer husk of the coconut and has various other uses, mainly to make carpets, doormats and brushes. The nut is then taken away to be processed in desiccated coconut mills. Here the oils, water and meat are removed and food products are made. What’s left is the shell husk, which is what we use to create the carbon. Every part of the coconut has a purpose.

Who grows the coconuts?
Coconuts grow on palm trees which are found in many places, but the fertile ones are only in a specific belt, mainly in the tropics. The coconuts we use are grown in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India, but they also grow in Vietnam,Thailand and some West African countries too. In these countries coconuts are often a very important, staple commercial crop. Farmers in these countries grow the coconuts. In order to keep our commitment to lessen the negative effects of our processes on the environment, each of our suppliers is vetted for good environmental practices before we begin using them.

How many coconuts do we use every year?
A rough estimate is around 2.8 billion per year!

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using coconuts?
Coconut carbon is microporous, meaning it has millions of tiny pores all over it. (This is where the adsorbed impurities end up.) This porosity can work against coconut carbon, as it doesn’t deal well with large molecules. In applications where large molecules are present, carbon made from a different source has to be used.

There are far more advantages to using coconuts as a raw material than disadvantages. Its microporosity lends itself well to gas applications. The coconut shell husk is also very hard and durable meaning it’s less likely to degrade during the many thermal processes it goes through to become activated carbon and, therefore, heavily reduces waste.

Palm trees take in a lot of CO2 from the atmosphere to create the coconut. This not only reduces the amount that we breathe in, but also means the fixed carbon content is relatively high. This means you end up with a large yield of activated carbon and very little waste or by-product.

How long have coconuts been used to make carbon?
A very long time! Here at Jacobi, we’ve been using coconuts for about 25 years, however, it’s certainly not a new idea. Coconut carbon was actually used in gas masks during the First World War.

Is it good for the environment to produce carbon from coconuts?
It has actually been shown that creating coconut carbon has what we call a negative CO2 impact. This means that, even after the various thermal processes the coconut goes through, there is a net reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere. This has been shown now in two studies. As mentioned above, the farming and harvesting of coconuts generates little to no waste too. It’s a superb raw material to choose if you are invested in taking good care of the environment, as we are at Jacobi.

Want to know more about our activated carbon products? Use this contact form to get in touch with our carbon experts. If you want to find out more about our sustainability efforts and programmes, visit our sustainability hub here.

Did you know? Some Coconut Facts

  • Coconuts have been around for longer than humans.
  • Coconut water was used as a replacement for blood plasma in transfusions during World War Two.
  • Palm trees can continue to provide a profitable yield for around 50 years.
  • The coconut crab is the largest land living crustacean and can de-husk a coconut, carry it up a palm tree, then drop it to crack it open and eat the meat inside.
  • John F. Kennedy’s life was saved by a coconut in 1943 during his time as a lieutenant in the US navy. JFK and his crew ended up stranded on an uninhabited island, surviving solely on coconuts. After carving a message on a coconut shell and passing it on to two local men in a boat, the crew were eventually rescued. (He kept the coconut on his desk at the White House during his time as president too.)
  • The coconut is a dupe and not a nut. (Originally it was simply called coco and English speakers later added the suffix nut.)
  • Mature coconuts are around 12 – 18 inches high, 6 – 8 inches wide and weigh, on average, 3.1lbs.
  • Coconuts grow on palm trees (often referred to as the ‘tree of life’), generally in coastal tropical areas in countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.
  • Palm trees and coconuts thrive in areas of sandy soil, abundant sunlight, regular rainfall and high humidity.
  • Coconuts are incredibly versatile with hundreds of uses. They are used to produce several different food and drink items, as an ingredient in beauty/health products, to create decorative items, to produce household tools such as brooms or mats and, of course, to create activated carbon!

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