Commercially available activated carbon (AC) powders made from different precursor materials (coal, peat, coconut shell, hardwood, and phenolic resin) were electrochemically evaluated as oxygen reduction catalysts and tested as cathode catalysts in microbial fuel cells (MFCs). AC powders were characterized in terms of surface chemistry and porosity, and their kinetic activities were compared to carbon black and platinum catalysts in rotating disk electrode (RDE) tests. Cathodes using the coal-derived AC had the highest power densities in MFCs (1620 ± 10 mW m-2). Peat-based AC performed similarly in MFC tests (1610 ± 100 mW m-2) and had the best catalyst performance, with an onset potential of Eonset = 0.17 V, and n = 3.6 electrons used for oxygen reduction. Hardwood based AC had the highest number of acidic surface functional groups and the poorest performance in MFC and catalysis tests (630 ± 10 mW m-2, Eonset = -0.01 V, n = 2.1). There was an inverse relationship between onset potential and quantity of strong acid (pKa < 8) functional groups, and a larger fraction of microporosity was negatively correlated with power production in MFCs. Surface area alone was a poor predictor of catalyst performance, and a high quantity of acidic surface functional groups was determined to be detrimental to oxygen reduction and cathode performance. © 2013 American Chemical Society.