Zeolites (Greek, zein, "to boil"; lithos, "a stone") are minerals that have a micro-porous structure. The term was originally coined in the 18th century by a Swedish mineralogist named Axel Fredrik Cronstedt who observed, upon rapidly heating a natural mineral, that the stones began to dance about as the water evaporated. Using the Greek words which mean "stone that boils," he called this material zeolite.
More than 150 zeolite types have been synthesized and 48 naturally occurring zeolites are known. They are basically hydrated alumino-silicate minerals with an "open" structure that can accommodate a wide variety of cations (positive ions), such as Na+, K+, Ca2+, Mg2+ and others. These positive ions are rather loosely held and can readily be exchanged for others in a contact solution. Some of the more common mineral zeolites are: analcime, chabazite, heulandite, natrolite, phillipsite, and stilbite. An example mineral formula is: Na2Al2Si3O10-2H2O, the formula for natrolite.
Natural zeolites form where volcanic rocks and ash layers react with alkaline groundwater. Zeolites also crystallized in post-depositional environments over periods ranging from thousands to millions of years in shallow marine basins. Naturally occurring zeolites are rarely pure and are contaminated to varying degrees by other minerals, metals, quartz or other zeolites. For this reason, naturally occurring zeolites are excluded from many important commercial applications where uniformity and purity are essential.
Zeolites are the aluminosilicate members of the family of microporous solids known as "molecular sieves". The term molecular sieve refers to a particular property of these materials, i.e. the ability to selectively sort molecules based primarily on a size exclusion process. This is due to a very regular pore structure of molecular dimensions. The maximum size of the molecular or ionic species that can enter the pores of a zeolite is controlled by the diameters of the tunnels. These are conventionally defined by the ring size of the aperture, where, for example, the term "8ring" refers to a closed loop that is built from 8 tetrahedrally coordinated silicon (or aluminium) atoms and 8 oxygen atoms. These rings are not always perfectly flat and symmetrical due to a variety of effects, including strain induced by the bonding between units that are needed to produce the overall structure, or coordination of some of the oxygen atoms of the rings to cations within the structure. Therefore, the pore openings for all rings of one size are not identical.
Conventional open pit mining techniques are used to mine natural zeolites. The overburden is removed to allow access to the ore. The ore may be blasted or stripped for processing by using tractors equipped with ripper blades and front-end loaders. In processing, the ore is crushed, dried, and milled. The milled ore may be air-classified as to particle size and shipped in bags or bulk. The crushed product may be screened to remove fine material when a granular product is required, and some pelletized products are produced from fine material. Producers also may modify the properties of the zeolite or blend their zeolite products with other materials before sale to enhance their performance.
Currently, the world’s annual production of natural zeolite is about 4 million tons. Of this quantity, 2.6 million tons are shipped to Chinese markets to be used in the concrete industry. Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Australia, and Asia are world leaders in supplying the world’s demand for natural zeolite. By comparison, only 57,400 metric tons (source: U.S. Geological Survey, 2004) of zeolite (only 1% of the world’s current production) is produced in North America; only recently has North America realized the potential for current and future markets.
There are several types of synthetic zeolites that form by a process of slow crystallization of a silica-alumina gel in the presence of alkalis and organic templates. One of the important process to carry out zeolite synthesis is sol-gel processing. The product properties depend on reaction mixture composition, pH of the system, operating temperature, pre-reaction 'seeding' time, reaction time as well as the templates used. In sol-gel process, other elements (metals, metal oxides) can be easily incorporated. The silicalite sol formed by the hydrothermal method is very stable. Also the ease of scaling up this process makes it a favorite route for zeolite synthesis.
Synthetic zeolites hold some key advantages over their natural analogs. The synthetics can, of course, be manufactured in a uniform, phase-pure state. It is also possible to manufacture desirable zeolite structures which do not appear in nature. Zeolite A is a well-known example. Since the principal raw materials used to manufacture zeolites are silica and alumina, which are among the most abundant mineral components on earth, the potential to supply zeolites is virtually unlimited. Finally, zeolite manufacturing processes engineered by man require significantly less time than the 50 to 50,000 years prescribed by nature. Disadvantages include the inability to create crystals with dimensions of a comparable size to their natural counterparts.
Commercial and Domestic
Zeolites are widely used as ion-exchange beds in domestic and commercial water purification, softening, and other applications. In chemistry, zeolites are used to separate molecules (only molecules of certain sizes and shapes can pass through), as traps for molecules so they can be analyzed.
Zeolites have the potential of providing precise and specific separation of gases including the removal of H2O, CO2 and SO2 from low-grade natural gas streams. Other separations include: noble gases, N2, freon and formaldehyde. However at present, the true potential to improve the handling of such gases in this manner remains unknown.
Synthetic Zeolites are widely used as catalysts in the petrochemical industry, for instance in Fluid Catalytic Cracking and Hydro-Cracking. Zeolites confine molecules in small spaces, which causes changes in their structure and reactivity. The hydrogen form of zeolites (prepared by ion-exchange) are powerful solid-state acids, and can facilitate a host of acid-catalyzed reaction, such as isomerisation, alkylation, and cracking.
Zeolites have uses in advanced reprocessing methods, where their micro-porous ability to capture some ions while allowing others to pass freely allow many fission products to be efficiently removed from nuclear waste and permanently trapped. Equally important is the mineral properties of zeolites. Their alumino-silicate construction is extremely durable and resistant to radiation even in porous form. Additionally, once they are loaded with trapped fission products, the zeolite-waste combination can be hot pressed into an extremely durable ceramic form, closing the pores and trapping the waste in a solid stone block. This is a waste form factor that greatly reduces its hazard compared to conventional reprocessing systems.
In agriculture, clinoptilolite (a naturally occurring zeolite) is used as a soil treatment. It provides a source of slowly released potassium. If previously loaded with ammonium, the zeolite can serve a similar function in the slow release of nitrogen. Cuban studies in the emerging field of "zeoponics" suggest that some crops may be grown in 100% zeolite or zeolite mixtures in which the zeolite is previously loaded or coated with fertilizer and micronutrients. Zeolites can also act a water moderators, whereby they will absorb up to 55% of their weight in water and slowly release it under plant demand. This can prevent root rot and moderate drought cycles.
A potting soil with 12% clinoptiloite was shown to harvest morning dew and return it to the
plant roots for reuse.
The same bed was able to grow a Jerico strain of Leaf Lettuce in a sub tropical climate without external water and daytime temps exceeding 85 Degrees F. This produce did not bolt and went full term before setting seeds. It also has been shown that certain zeolites can reduce nitrates and nitrites to more plant usable free nitrogen by ion exchange.
In Concentrated Animal Growing facilities, the addition of as little as 1% of a very low sodium clinoptiloite was shown to improve feed conversion, reduce airborne ammonia up to 80%, act as a mycotoxin binder and improve bone density.
Zeolite-based oxygen generation systems are widely used to produce medical grade oxygen. The zeolite is used as a molecular sieve to create purified oxygen from air, in a process involving the absorption of undesired gases and other atmospheric components, leaving highly purified oxygen and up to 5% argon.
Their use is also being explored for quickly clotting severe bleeding under the brand name "QuikClot" or "Hemosorb". The manufacturer claims that the biologically and botanically inert granulated material can be poured directly on the wound to stop high-volume bleeding almost instantaneously.
Heating and refrigeration
Zeolites can be used as solar thermal collectors and for adsorption refrigeration. In these applications, their high heat of adsorption and ability to hydrate and dehydrate while maintaining structural stability is exploited. This hygroscopic property coupled with an inherent exothermic reaction when transitioning from a dehydrated to a hydrated form (heat adsorption), make natural zeolites effective in the storage of solar and waste heat energy.
The largest outlet for synthetic zeolite is the global laundry detergent market. This amounted to 1.44 million metric tons per year of anhydrous zeolite A in 1992.
Synthetic zeolite is also being used as an additive in the production process of warm mix asphalt concrete. The development of this application started in Europe (Germany) in the 1990s and enjoys great public interest throughout the world ever since (see link below). It helps decreasing the temperature level during manufacture and laying of asphalt concrete, resulting in lower consumption of fossil fuels, thus releasing less carbon dioxide, aerosols and vapours. When added to Portland Cement as a Pozzolan, it can reduce Chloride Permability and improve workability, Reduces weight and help moderate water content while allowing for slower drying which improves break strength.
Thomsonites have been collected as gemstones from a series of lava flows along Lake Superior in Minnesota and to a lesser degree in Michigan, U.S.A.. Thomsonite nodules from these areas have eroded from basalt lava flows and are collected on beaches and by scuba divers in Lake Superior.
These thomsonite nodules have concentric rings in combinations of colors, black, white, orange, pink, red and many shades of green. Some nodules have copper as inclusions and rarely will be found with copper "eyes". When polished by a lapidary the thomsonites sometimes display chatoyancy.