Abstract Two brown coals, xylitic and earthy, carbonized at 1173 K were activated with water vapour, carbon dioxide and oxygen, each producing a different distribution of porosity. In the xylitic coke, activated in the range of burn-offs from 1 to 70%, the action of water vapour results in the development of pores of all dimensions. At the highest burn-off the product has an effective surface area of 920 m2 g−1 and a total sorptive pore volume of 0.83 cm3 g−1, 33% of which is in micropores. Carbon dioxide creates, from the xylitic coke at the burn-off of 70%, a highly microporous adsorbent with about the same surface area (890 m2 g−1) as the corresponding water-vapour activated product. The pore volume of the carbon dioxide sample is lower (0.49 cm3 g−1) but these contain 63% of micropores, which amounts to a contribution of 92% of these pores to the effective total surface area. The activation of the xylitic coke with oxygen leads to a high development of porosity at low burn-offs, but becomes ineffective on continuation of the process to medium and high burn-offs. This is thought to be due to a blocking of the entrances of the micropores by surface oxygen complexes formed on the surface of the coke. Oxygen gives, at a high burn-off, a product with the lowest total adsorptive volume (0.45 cm3 g−1) and surface area (650 m2 g−1). All the activated products obtained from the xylitic coke can be regarded, when effective surface areas are considered, as microporous adsorbents. With the earthy coke a total adsorptive pore volume (consisting mainly of wide mesopores) is developed which is higher than with the corresponding xylitic coke, but this result is difficult to reproduce, because the earthy coke samples are easily influenced by temperature in the process of activation, especially that by oxygen.

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