Organic compounds are typically defined as “molecules containing carbon”. Wikipedia states that there for some historical (read: non-logical) reasons,

a few types of carbon-containing compounds such as carbides, carbonates, simple oxides of carbon, and cyanides, as well as the allotropes of carbon such as diamond and graphite, are considered inorganic.

I thus wonder: is activated charcoal (also known as activated carbon) typically classified as an organic or inorganic material?

If I follow the list of exceptions given by Wikipedia, it should be organic (it's not an allotrope of carbon, in particular), but I get the feeling that most people in the field of porous materials would classify it as inorganic. So, I'm looking for an authoritative reference on this question.

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    $\begingroup$ Asking for charcoal might be interesting (in fact it is some highly disturbed graphite) but activated charcoal is a complicated industrial product, containing more than just carbon. And, as Chris says below, this kind of question is not a question among chemists. $\endgroup$
    – Georg
    Apr 27, 2012 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ It's an important question when these categories relate to compositions of products protected by patents. These terms are frequently used to cover a wide range of potential inclusions, for example. $\endgroup$
    – Allie
    Oct 31, 2017 at 17:38

3 Answers 3


While nomenclature is of particular interest to organic chemists to specify an exact compound, the classification of X into broad category Y or Z isn't a precise science, and not really of practical use. The article cites a textbook by Seager to this effect, stating

The distinction between "organic" and "inorganic" carbon compounds, while "useful in organizing the vast subject of chemistry... is somewhat arbitrary"

Even if you find a source that says "charcoal is (in)organic", you may just as well find one stating the opposite. Just like the coal from which it may have been produced, it was once biomass and decidedly organic, but so was graphite and diamond, or CO2 and CO32−. I think it's overly pedantic and unproductive to try to come up with definitive judgements for these decidedly edge case scenarios.

After all, it's just a chemical on the shelf, what one does with it is far more relevant. I don't use it on a daily basis, but it seems more like a tool than a reagent. The fact it contains carbon seems beside the point; it's value isn't in the chemical composition but rather its extraordinary adsorptive properties.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. Arbitrary distinctions really serve no purpose. Cutting things into different categories is really only useful for a bureaucracy. Then you end up with things like Health Insurance not being the same thing as Dental. (Meant to be a funny!) $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Apr 26, 2012 at 8:27

Charcoal is the product of burning, dehydrating, and evaporating the volatile substances from formerly living matter. Since activated carbon is made by processing charcoal, it would be considered an organic product.

There's a bit of a grey area here, admittedly. Iron is typically considered inorganic, but it's absolutely critical to life. In the context of studying hemoglobin, some experts speak about this iron as organic.

Also, the distinction between "organic" vs "inorganic" is less meaningful than it used to be.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the reasoning… do you have any reference to back that up? $\endgroup$
    – F'x
    Apr 26, 2012 at 1:24

Charcoal is carbon. As such it is normally classified as inorganic.

Consequently, you will find the chemical and physical properties of charcoal being discussed in textbooks about inorganic chemistry but rarely in textbooks about organic chemistry.


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