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I have some activated charcoal pads or small "pillows" that can be used to adsorb odors and chemical fumes from different materials.

The instructions say to put them out in sunlight to reactivate them once they have been used for a while.

What is the mechanism whereby sunlight is able to reactivate the charcoal?

I tried googling but could not find a definitive answer. I ended up assuming it must be just heat that forces the gasses trapped in the charcoal to come loose and evaporate, thereby restoring some of the adsorption potential. Is that the mechanism or what is the sorcery going on here?

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Your guess is right: the mechanism of charcoal regeneration is undoubtably temperature-induced desorption. Gas molecules are adsorbed on the large surface area of activated carbon by a mechanism of physisorption (or physical sorption) caused by weak nonspecific interactions (van der Waals forces) between gas molecules and the carbon surface. Unlike chemisorption, this process is reversible and, since it involves only weak interactions, it can actually be reversed by relatively small increases of temperature.

Wikipedia gives a specific example:

The activated carbon can adsorb a large amount of methanol vapours in ambient temperature and desorb it at a higher temperature (around 100 degrees Celsius). During the daytime, the sunshine irradiates the collector, so the collector is heated up and the methanol is desorbed from the activated carbon. In desorption, the liquid methanol adsorbed in the charcoal heats up and vaporizes.

You will surely notice the resemblance between this text and your case.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would it be reasonable to assume that any heat source could regenerate charcoal? $\endgroup$ – mikewaters Feb 9 '18 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ @F'x The example from wikipedia seems to have disappeared. The exact paragraph is here. It also seems to show up verbatim in a bunch of online encyclopedias without a source, so I don't know where it was from originally. $\endgroup$ – Tyberius Aug 10 '18 at 21:27

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