10 January 2010

Smart carbon and stupid people

I love my Brita pitcher. I've sung its praises in this space repeatedly and I'll say it again: I love my Brita pitcher.

Britas, like most gravity-fed water filtration systems, use gravity to pull water through a disc of activated carbon. Activated carbon is pretty much charcoal, it's just a pure form of it that's been treated in order to increase the amount of space between the carbon atoms it's made from.

Traditionally, charcoal is made through a process called pyrolization. In pyrolization, organic (carbon-based) material like wood or agricultural waste is superheated in an environment devoid of oxygen. In the absence of oxygen, the material can't catch fire and instead its volatile compounds evaporate and leave behind the carbon they were once bonded to. There are a variety of chemical and physical processes available in order to bring about this pyrolytic reaction but all of them yield the same result, a highly porous form of carbon.  Its value as a filter comes from two things: the purity of the carbon and the surface area made possible by all of its pores. Get this, a gram of activated carbon can have a surface area that ranges between 300 and 2,000 square meters according to my pals at How Stuff Works.

Carbon filters work through a process called adsorption. That's adsorption with a D and not a B. As water passes through the microscopic pores in the activated carbon filter, specific organic and inorganic chemicals and elements stick to the surface of the carbon. Think of the difference between adsorption and absorption this way. In absorption, material A gets sucked into the volume of material B. In adsorption, material A sticks to the surface of material B. An even simpler way to think of this that's more or less still accurate is when you wipe up a spill with a paper towel, the paper towel absorbs the spill. When you have a dusty floor and you wipe up the dust with a Swiffer, the Swiffer adsorbs the dust. Make sense?

Carbon filters work terrifically and they remove all manner of organic and inorganic stuff from tap water. Over time though, all of the surface area in the filter available for adsorption gets covered over and they stop being effective. You can't really clean a spent carbon filter, so you just replace them every couple of months. Simple and effective, and once again chemistry is your friend.

Well, a well-meaning but highly suggestible internet pal sent me a link to a solution to a problem that I didn't know I had. Apparently, my disposal of spent carbon filters every couple of months is an environmental crime on par with driving a Hummer or burning coal. Please. Anyhow, she sent me to a link to something called Sort of Coal. I don't really want to provide a link back to them but I suppose I owe them that much since I'm about to use a bunch of their images.

Sort of Coal sells pseudo scientific crap and snake oil and they do it in the form of something they call "white charcoal." The charcoal's still black of course, but in a world where reality doesn't matter, a consistent vocabulary must not be too important either.

My well-meaning internet pal sent me a link to this product:

It's what Sort of Coal calls Bottle and Kinshu Binchotan. It costs €68 plus Denmark's 25% VAT. That's €85 ($122.45 US) plus shipping. Oh yeah, carbon filtration doesn't happen by osmosis so it's pretty much ineffective as a filter. Sort of Coal doesn't mention how big the bottle is so I can't figure out the cost per serving. So despite the omission of the bottle size it does tell me this:
Serving and drinking local tap water becomes a pure and beautiful daily experience – with Bottle and Kishu Binchotan, each product is given its perfect complement.

Kishu Binchotan soaks up chlorine from tap water while releasing natural minerals into it. Kishu Binchotan softens the water and improves the overall taste.
What a load of BS. Tap water as a "pure and beautiful" daily experience? It's a frickin' glass of water, not an orgasm. It's not even a filtered glass of water at that.

Sort of Coal goes on to ascribe all manner of nonsense to its pyrolized wood. Here's what's called a Hakutan Tray and it's made from charcoal and plastic.

I have no idea how big it is, but Sort of Coal tells me this:
A decorative, purifying tray, made from cross-sections of White Charcoal set with compressed charcoal powder and resin. White Charcoal is produced by hand and is naturally activated during a controlled burning process. Use a Hakutan tray in the kitchen or living room. Fruit will remain fresh longer when placed on the Hakutan tray. Wipe it clean with a damp cloth. Do not use soap. It remains active for years if exposed to direct sunlight occasionally.

This product is organic and C02 friendly.
CO2 friendly? How can something made from partially burned wood and plastic be CO2 friendly? What does CO2 friendly mean anyway? How can a company make a claim like "Fruit will remain fresh longer when placed on the Hakutan Tray" and get away with it? Can they be held responsible for bananas that rot at the same rate that they would on a tray not made from "white charcoal?" If anybody wants to part with €160 ($230.50 US) to find out, let me know how it goes.

The unproven assertions just keep on coming with these people. Check out this:

Welcome to the Hakutan Large. The Hakutan Large is described thus:
Korean White Charcoal stems. White charcoal is made by hand and is naturally activated through a controlled burning process. Hakutan absorbs gases, pollution and odors from the air. It can be placed in your bathroom to regulate humidity, in the living room and kitchen to absorb cooking steam and odours. For generations people in Asia have used it to freshen air and create a better indoor environment. Charcoal is also used in spaces where there is intensive computer use, because it creates natural anions and thus has a positive effect on mental well-being. Keep free from dust. If you refresh it once in a while by placing it in direct sunlight, you can keep the Hakutan active for years. Charcoal should be recycled. White charcoal has a positive effect on the environment even when you dispose of it.

When the time comes to get a new Hakutan, crush it and mix it with soil so plants can benefit from it. This makes Hakutan CO2 friendly
So using this €120 ($172.87) stick of charcoal will have a positive effect on my mental well-being because it releases natural anions. I love how they pair their absurd claims with they mystery of the Orient. I'm not Asian but I think I'd be insulted if I were. But at least they explain how they get CO2 friendly from this.

Some day soon, I promise, we'll have a chat about ions and anions but I think I may have exhausted you guys by now.

Part of me admires the gall of these people to make the claims they do and charge what they do for this useless garbage. A bigger part of me is appalled at how this sort of new-agey clap trap can be lapped up so readily by an uncritical public.

The world faces a host of serious environmental problems that need to be addressed if it's to remain a planet fit for human life. The solutions to those problems will come from the fields of chemistry, biology, physics and their allied scientific disciplines. The mechanisms that underlie the physical world can be understood and that understanding only increases their wonder. Really.


  1. I personally refused to get a brita filter for years b/c i hated throwing the plastic into the garbage, not necessarily the charcoal. The plastic isn't recycleable. Some "green" stores will allow you to recycle the brita and pur filters. Whole Foods is one of them, but I can't find or remember the article that listed the others. There are also DIY refills posted on around the internet.

  2. In the big scheme of things, an unrecyclable Brita filter is a speck of dust. If it makes you feel better not to buy them then more power to you. In the meantime, I will continue to buy and use them with gleeful abandon. Thanks for your comment.

  3. "made by hand and is naturally activated through a controlled burning process. "

    They have all the feel-good stuff that sucks suckers in: "made by hand" and "naturally". Give me a break. This kind of crap bothers me because it's just so insulting.

  4. It's fiendishly clever all right, and frankly appalling. This kind of moronic stuff drives me crazy for the fact that no one seems to question it.

  5. This sort of snake oil sales pitch will never cease to amaze me.

  6. Especially when it's hawking something that doesn't work. But that never stops the nutritional supplement people either.

  7. But the packaging is so PRETTY! How can it NOT be good for you? Or: The only good design in these products is in the packaging.

    Couldn't decide which to post, so I did both. Sorry.

  8. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

  9. "New-agey clap trap"....ditto! Well said Paul.

  10. Shockingly enough, I came across a write up about these on the Apartment Therapy "Re-Nest" site. Though, no one there had apparently used the product and the write up came across more like a commercial for the product than anything.

    Maybe you just need to believe in it and think good thoughts (with a sprinkling of fairy dust) for it to work?

  11. Well of course Apartment Therapy would think it's a fine idea. Of Course. That's about as sound an indictment as I can imagine.

  12. My feng is more shui than yours. Let's write the clever jingle and then find a product to stick in and have it be about. Of course, I'm sure there are other domains in which I readily buy the "fairy dust."
    Between being cheap and lazy, I often wait long enough to trade my Amway/Quixtar filter that I KNOW I can taste the difference! Cheers, g

  13. Hey George, thanks for your comment. I like the idea of writing jingles first and then finding appropriate products for the later. Art should come before commerce after all. Right?

    Do you take requests for guests on your show? Just wondering. I think a round table with Nancie, Julie and Jo Ann would be a run away hit. It would be like The View with a mosaic twist.

  14. I just love the line, "Keep free from dust," in the Hakutan Large blurb -- clear evidence of the bubble some people live in. And White Charcoal is about as convincing as Clean Coal. Thanks for an entertaining post!

  15. Thanks for your comment Anna. I still shake my head over the absurdity of this product. It's a relief to know I'm not the only one.

  16. I came across your site while searching for a place to buy this water filter. Some friends in Denmark had it and I definitely thought it worked and improved the water quality. Though I did question how - since you don't pour the water through - and the 'science bit' seemed a little vague....my friends kept telling me it's something they've been using for ever' in Japan and it's become really big in Denmark - but none of my Japanese friends seem to know about it.

    You definitely made me think twice about buying it. Did I just think the water tasted better caused it looked so stylish???? I'm confused because coal does filter water and air in conventional filters (like Brita etc) so why would it not work with a natural piece of it just left in the room or water??? I too hate the new age vagueness of the companies promotional language, but that does not mean the products basic functions does not work???


  17. No one in Japan has been using a burned stick in their water supply. That product is snake oil masquerading as science, but there's no science behind it. Carbon filtration cannot happen by osmosis. Water has to pass through activated carbon, it can't just sit next to it. Save your money and buy a Brita. Filters that feature anything but a pass though action cannot work.

    Their fake and ineffective filters are bad enough, but their claims of long-lived fresh fruit on carbon platters or positive energy in a room where there's a hunk of burned wood are borderline criminal. These kinds of claims prey on most people's scientific illiteracy and wish to take control of a world that feels uncontrollable. It's shameful really.


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