Skip to Content

Is charcoal a type of black?

Charcoal is a material known for its dark black color. But is charcoal actually a type of black? Or does it just appear black to our eyes? In this article, we’ll examine the properties of charcoal and its relationship to the color black.

What is Charcoal?

Charcoal is a carbon-rich material that is produced by heating wood or other organic materials in the absence of oxygen. This process, known as pyrolysis, drives off water and volatile compounds, leaving behind mostly pure carbon and ash.

The carbon atoms in charcoal are arranged in a disordered, amorphous structure. This gives charcoal its black color and porous texture. Unlike graphite, which is another form of carbon with a crystalline structure, the carbon atoms in charcoal do not form an ordered internal structure.

Properties of Charcoal

Here are some key properties of charcoal:

  • Made mostly of carbon
  • Amorphous structure
  • Extremely porous, with a high surface area
  • Black in color
  • Electrically conductive
  • Absorbs gases, liquids, and dissolved substances
  • Brittle and lighter than wood
  • Burns without flame

The high carbon content and amorphous structure give charcoal its black color. The porous texture also traps light, making it appear darker.

What Makes Something Black?

The perception of blackness arises from an object or material that absorbs most visible light frequencies and does not reflect them back to our eyes. Pigments or substances that appear black have these key qualities:

  • Broad absorption of visible light waves
  • Minimal reflection of light
  • Surface with roughness to trap light

The absorption and scattering of light by charcoal gives it an extremely dark, black appearance.

Light Absorption Properties

Charcoal is an excellent absorber of light. It can absorb over a broad range of visible wavelengths, from 400 to 700 nanometers. This absorption profile contributes to its perceived blackness.

The light absorption abilities of charcoal also depend on factors like the carbon content and porosity. Higher carbon charcoals made at higher temperatures tend to be more black.

Here is a table comparing the light absorption of different types of charcoal:

Type of Charcoal Carbon Content Absorption % at 550 nm
Wood charcoal 80-90% 95%
Lump charcoal 95% 98%
Activated charcoal 95-100% 99%

Activated charcoal, with higher carbon purity, absorbs almost all visible light, appearing perfectly black.

Minimal Light Reflection

In addition to absorbing light, charcoal also reflects very little light. Light that isn’t absorbed is trapped within the porous structure rather than being reflected.

The amorphous carbon structure results in diffuse light reflection. This makes charcoal appear matte black rather than glossy black.

Flat charcoal powder has a reflectance of only around 4% of visible light. In comparison, black glossy paint can reflect over 10% of light.

Trapping of Light

The porous structure of charcoal acts as a light trap. The random pores, gaps, and cavities effectively absorb and scatter light. This light trapping reinforces the black appearance.

Higher surface area charcoals, such as activated carbon, are especially black due to enhanced light trapping. Activated carbon has a surface area of 500-2000 m2/g, providing extensive pores to trap light.

Comparison to Other Black Materials

How does charcoal compare to other black materials in terms of light absorption? Here is a comparison table:

Material Light Absorption %
Vantablack 99.965%
Ocular black 99-99.5%
Activated charcoal 99%
Black acrylic paint 98-99%
Black velvet 98-99%

Vantablack and ocular black have the best light absorption, but charcoal absorbs comparably to acrylic paint and velvet. So while not quite as black as specialty black materials, charcoal effectively absorbs broad spectrum visible light.


Based on its light absorption properties, minimal reflection, and light trapping structure, charcoal exhibits all the qualities of a black material or pigment. While not the truest or deepest black due to its composition and structure, charcoal absorbs almost all visible light, making it appear intensely black.

So in summary:

  • Charcoal is made of amorphous carbon that readily absorbs light
  • It absorbs most visible wavelengths, reflecting very little light
  • Its porous structure traps light through diffusion and scattering
  • This gives charcoal a matte black appearance to our eyes

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that charcoal is indeed a type of black pigment, not just in appearance but also in its intrinsic optical properties.