Adsorption, the binding of molecules or particles to a surface, must be distinguished from absorption, the filling of pores in a solid. The binding to the surface is usually weak and reversible. Just about anything including the fluid that dissolves or suspends the material of interest is bound, but compounds with color and those that have taste or odor tend to bind strongly. Compounds that contain chromogenic groups (atomic arrangements that vibrate at frequencies in the visible spectrum) very often are strongly adsorbed on activated carbon. Decolorization can be wonderfully efficient by adsorption and with negligible loss of other materials.
The most common industrial adsorbents are activated carbon, silica gel, and alumina, because they present enormous surface areas per unit weight. Activated carbon is produced by roasting organic material to decompose it to granules of carbon - coconut shell, wood, and bone are common sources. Silica gel is a matrix of hydrated silicon dioxide. Alumina is mined or precipitated aluminum oxide and hydroxide. Although activated carbon is a magnificent material for adsorption, its black color persists and adds a grey tinge if even trace amounts are left after treatment; however filter materials with fine pores remove carbon quite well.
A surface already heavily contaminated by adsorbates is not likely to have much capacity for additional binding. Freshly prepared activated carbon has a clean surface. Charcoal made from roasting wood differs from activated carbon in that its surface is contaminated by other products, but further heating will drive off these compounds to produce a surface with high adsorptive capacity. Although the carbon atoms and linked carbons are most important for adsorption, the mineral structure contributes to shape and to mechanical strength. Spent activated carbon is regenerated by roasting, but the thermal expansion and contraction eventually disintegrate the structure so some carbon is lost or oxidized.
Temperature effects on adsorption are profound, and measurements are usually at a constant temperature. Graphs of the data are called isotherms. Most steps using adsorbents have little variation in temperature.