Due to increasing concerns about environmental pollutants, the development of an effective adsorbent or sensitive sensor has been pursued in recent years. Diverse porous materials have been selected as promising candidates for detecting and removing harmful materials, but the most appropriate pore structure and surface functional groups, both important factors for effective adsorbency, have not yet been fully elucidated. In particular, there is limited information relating to the use of activated carbon materials for effective adsorbent of specific pollutants. Here, the pore structure and surface functionality of polyacrylonitrile-based activated carbon fibers were investigated to develop an efficient adsorbent for polar pollutants. The effect of pore structure and surface functional groups on removal capability was investigated. The activated carbons with higher nitrogen content show a great ability to absorb formaldehyde because of their increased affinity with polar pollutants. In particular, nitrogen functional groups that neighbor oxygen atoms play an important role in maximizing adsorption capability. However, because there is also a similar increase in water affinity in adsorbents with polar functional groups, there is a considerable decrease in adsorption ability under humid conditions because of preferential adsorption of water to adsorbents. Therefore, it can be concluded that pore structures, surface functional groups and the water affinity of any adsorbent should be considered together to develop an effective and practical adsorbent for polar pollutants. These studies can provide vital information for developing porous materials for efficient adsorbents, especially for polar pollutants.
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