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The present paper reviews the critical properties of natural zeolites and important …

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- La roca magica: Uses of natural zeolites in agriculture and industry

Colloquium Paper


La roca magica: Uses of natural zeolites in agriculture and industry

Frederick A. Mumpton*
Edit Inc., P.O. Box 591, Clarkson, NY 14430

For nearly 200 years since their discovery in 1756, geologists considered the zeolite minerals to occur as fairly large crystals in the vugs and cavities of basalts and other traprock formations. Here, they were prized by mineral collectors, but their small abundance and polymineralic nature defied commercial exploitation. As the synthetic zeolite (molecular sieve) business began to take hold in the late 1950s, huge beds of zeolite-rich sediments, formed by the alteration of volcanic ash (glass) in lake and marine waters, were discovered in the western United States and elsewhere in the world. These beds were found to contain as much as 95% of a single zeolite; they were generally flat-lying and easily mined by surface methods. The properties of these low-cost natural materials mimicked those of many of their synthetic counterparts, and considerable effort has made since that time to develop applications for them based on their unique adsorption, cation-exchange, dehydration–rehydration, and catalytic properties. Natural zeolites (i.e., those found in volcanogenic sedimentary rocks) have been and are being used as building stone, as lightweight aggregate and pozzolans in cements and concretes, as filler in paper, in the take-up of Cs and Sr from nuclear waste and fallout, as soil amendments in agronomy and horticulture, in the removal of ammonia from municipal, industrial, and agricultural waste and drinking waters, as energy exchangers in solar refrigerators, as dietary supplements in animal diets, as consumer deodorizers, in pet litters, in taking up ammonia from animal manures, and as ammonia filters in kidney-dialysis units. From their use in construction during Roman times, to their role as hydroponic (zeoponic) substrate for growing plants on space missions, to their recent success in the healing of cuts and wounds, natural zeolites are now considered to be full-fledged mineral commodities, the use of which promise to expand even more in the future.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 March 30; 96(7): 3463–3470.

The discovery of natural zeolites 40 years ago as large, widespread, mineable, near-monomineralic deposits in tuffaceous sedimentary rocks in the western United States and other countries opened another chapter in the book of useful industrial minerals whose exciting surface and structural properties have been exploited in industrial, agricultural, environmental, and biological technology. Like talc, diatomite, wollastonite, chrysotile, vermiculite, and bentonite, zeolite minerals possess attractive adsorption, cation-exchange, dehydration–rehydration, and catalysis properties, which contribute directly to their use in pozzolanic cement; as lightweight aggregates; in the drying of acid-gases; in the separation of oxygen from air; in the removal of NH3 from drinking water and municipal wastewater; in the extraction of Cs and Sr from nuclear wastes and the mitigation of radioactive fallout; as dietary supplements to improve animal production; as soil amendments to improve cation-exchange capacities (CEC) and water sorption capacities; as soilless zeoponic substrate for greenhouses and space missions; in the deodorization of animal litter, barns, ash trays, refrigerators, and athletic footwear; in the removal of ammoniacal nitrogen from saline hemodialysis solutions; and as bactericides, insecticides, and antacids for people and animals. This multitude of uses of natural zeolites has prompted newspapers in Cuba, where large deposits have been discovered, to refer to zeolites as the magic rock, hence the title of this paper.

The present paper reviews the critical properties of natural zeolites and important uses in pollution control, the handling and storage of nuclear wastes, agriculture, and biotechnology. The paper also pleads for greater involvement by mineral scientists in the surface, colloidal, and biochemical investigations that are needed in the future development of zeolite applications.

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