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Diatomaceous earth (IPA: /?d???t?'me???s '??(r)?/, also known as DE, diatomite, diahydro, kieselguhr, kieselgur and Celite) is a naturally occurring, soft, chalk-like sedimentary rock that is easily crumbled into a fine white to off-white powder. This powder has an abrasive feel, similar to pumice powder and is very light, due to its high porosity. The typical chemical composition of diatomaceous earth is 86% silica, 5% sodium, 3% magnesium and 2% iron.

Diatomaceous earth consists of fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae. It is used as a filtration aid, as a mild abrasive, as a mechanical insecticide, as an absorbent for liquids, as cat litter, as an activator in blood clotting studies, and as a component of dynamite. As it is also heat-resistant, it can be used as a thermal insulator.

  • Applications
  • Filtration
  • The most common use (68%) of diatomaceous earth is as a filter medium, especially for swimming pools. It has a high porosity, because it is composed of microscopically-small, coffin-like, hollow particles. It is used in chemistry, as a filtration aid, to filter very fine particles that would otherwise pass or clog filter paper. It is also used to filter water and other liquids, such as beer. It can also filter syrups and sugar. Other industries such as paper, paints, ceramics, soap and detergents use it as a fulling material.

  • Abrasive
  • The oldest use of diatomite is as a very mild abrasive and, for this purpose, it has been used both in toothpaste and in metal polishes.

  • Pest control
  • Diatomite is also used as an insecticide, due to its physico-sorptive properties. The fine powder absorbs lipids from the cuticle, the waxy outer layer of insects' exoskeletons, causing them to dehydrate. Arthropods die as a result of the water pressure deficiency, based on Fick's law of diffusion. This also works against gastropods and is commonly employed in gardening to defeat slugs. However, since slugs inhabit humid environments, efficacy is very low. Beekeepers are apparently experimenting with it, to keep small hive beetles from breeding. It is sometimes mixed with an attractant or other additives to increase its effectiveness. Medical grade diatomite is sometimes used to de-worm both animals and humans. It is most commonly used in lieu of boric acid, and can be used to help control and eventually eliminate a cockroach infestation.

  • Absorbent
  • Its absorbent qualities make it useful for spill clean-up and the U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends it to clean up toxic liquid spills.

    More recently, it has been employed as a primary ingredient in a type of cat litter. The type of silica used in cat litter comes from freshwater sources and does not pose a significant health risk to pets or humans.

    In 1867, Alfred Nobel discovered that nitroglycerin could be made much more stable if absorbed in diatomite. He patented this mixture as dynamite, and the mixture is also referred to as guhr dynamite.

  • Thermal
  • Its thermal properties enable it to be used as the barrier material in some fire resistant safes.

  • Geology
  • Because diatomite forms from the remains of water-borne diatoms, it is found close to either current or former bodies of water. It is generally divided into two categories based upon source: freshwater and saltwater. Freshwater diatomite is mined from dry lakebeds and is characteristically low in crystalline silica content. Saltwater diatomite contains a high crystalline silica content, making it a useful material for filters, due to the sieve-like features of the crystals.

  • Specific varieties
  • TripoliteDakine is the variety found in Tripoli, Libya.

    Bann clay is the variety found in the Lower Bann valley in Northern Ireland.

    Moler (Mo-clay) is the variety found in northwestern Denmark, especially on the islands of Fur and Mors.

  • Climatologic importance
  • The Earth's climate depends greatly on the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and hence, locating major sources of dust are of great interest for climatology. Recent research indicates that surface deposits of diatomaceous earth play a dominant resource here, a major example being the Bodélé depression in the part of the Sahara belonging to Chad, where storms push diatomite gravel over dunes, where dust is abraded, leading to the largest single influx of dust into the atmosphere.

  • Safety considerations
  • The absorbent qualities of diatomite can result in a significant drying of the hands, if handled without gloves. The saltwater (industrial) form contains a highly crystalline form of silica, resulting in sharp edges. The sharpness of this version of the material makes it dangerous to breathe and a dust mask is recommended when working with it.

    The type of hazard posed by inhalation depends on the form of the silica. Crystalline silica poses a serious inhalation hazard because it can cause silicosis. Amorphous silica can cause dusty lungs, but does not carry the same degree of risk as crystalline silica. Food-grade diatomite generally contains very low percentages of crystalline silica. Diatomite produced for pool filters is treated with heat, causing the formerly amorphous silicon dioxide to assume its crystalline form.

    In the United States, the crystalline silica content in the dusts is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and there are guidelines for the maximum amounts allowable in the product and in the air near the breathing zone of workers.

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