Zeolites are microporous, aluminosilicate minerals commonly used as commercial adsorbents and catalysts. The term zeolite was originally coined in 1756 by Swedish mineralogist Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, who observed that upon rapidly heating the material stilbite, it produced large amounts of steam from water that had been adsorbed by the material. Based on this, he called the material zeolite, from the Greek ζέω (zéō), meaning “to boil” and λίθος (líthos), meaning “stone”.
Zeolites occur naturally but are also produced industrially on a large scale. As of July 2015, 229 unique zeolite frameworks have been identified, and over 40 naturally occurring zeolite frameworks are known.
Properties and occurrence
Zeolites have a porous structure that can accommodate a wide variety of cations, 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 areanalcime, chabazite, clinoptilolite, 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 crystallize 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 dimensions of the channels. These are conventionally defined by the ring size of the aperture, where, for example, the term “8-ring” refers to a closed loop that is built from eight tetrahedrally coordinated silicon (or aluminium) atoms and 8 oxygen atoms. These rings are not always perfectly 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 pores in many zeolites are not cylindrical.
Zeolites transform to other minerals under weathering, hydrothermal alteration or metamorphic conditions. Some examples:
- The sequence of silica-rich volcanic rocks commonly progresses from:
- Clay → quartz → mordenite–heulandite → epistilbite → stilbite → thomsonite–mesolite-scolecite → chabazite → calcite.
- The sequence of silica-poor volcanic rocks commonly progresses from:
- Cowlesite → levyne–offretite → analcime → thomsonite–mesolite-scolecite → chabazite → calcite.
Industrially important zeolites are produced synthetically. Typical procedures entail heating aqueous solutions of alumina and silica with sodium hydroxide. Equivalent reagents include sodium aluminate and sodium silicate. Further variations include changes in the cations to include quaternary ammonium cations.
Synthetic zeolites hold some key advantages over their natural analogs. The synthetic materials are manufactured in a uniform, phase-pure state. It is also possible to produce zeolite structures that 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.
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.
As of 2016 the world’s annual production of natural zeolite approximates 3 million tonnes. Major producers in 2010 included China (2 million tonnes), South Korea (210,000 t), Japan (150,000 t), Jordan (140,000 t), Turkey (100,000 t) Slovakia (85,000 t) and the United States (59,000 t). The ready availability of zeolite-rich rock at low cost and the shortage of competing minerals and rocks are probably the most important factors for its large-scale use. According to the United States Geological Survey, it is likely that a significant percentage of the material sold as zeolites in some countries is ground or sawn volcanic tuff that contains only a small amount of zeolites. Some examples of such usage include dimension stone (as an altered volcanic tuff), lightweight aggregate, pozzolanic cement, and soil conditioners.
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), and as traps for molecules so they can be analyzed.
Zeolites are also widely used as catalysts and sorbents. Their well-defined pore structure and adjustable acidity make them highly active in a large variety of reactions.
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, O2, freon and formaldehyde.
On-board oxygen generating systems (OBOGS) and Oxygen concentrators use zeolites in conjunction with pressure swing adsorption to remove nitrogen from compressed air in order to supply oxygen for aircrews at high altitudes, as well as home and portable oxygen supplies.
Synthetic zeolites are widely used as catalysts in the petrochemical industry, for instance in fluid catalytic cracking and hydrocracking. 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 reactions, such as isomerisation, alkylation, and cracking. The specific activation modality of most zeolitic catalysts used in petrochemical applications involves quantum-chemical Lewis acid site reactions.
Catalytic cracking uses reactor and a regenerator. Feed is injected onto hot, fluidized catalyst where large gasoil molecules are broken into smaller gasoline molecules andolefins. The vapor-phase products are separated from the catalyst and distilled into various products. The catalyst is circulated to a regenerator where air is used to burn coke off the surface of the catalyst that was formed as a byproduct in the cracking process. The hot regenerated catalyst is then circulated back to the reactor to complete its cycle.
Zeolites have uses in advanced reprocessing methods, where their micro-porous ability to capture some ions while allowing others to pass freely, allowing many fission products to be efficiently removed from nuclear waste and permanently trapped. Equally important are 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. Zeolites are also used in the management of leaks of radioactive materials. For example, in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, sandbags of zeolite were dropped into the seawater near the power plant to adsorb radioactive caesium which was present in high levels.
The German group Fraunhofer e.V. announced that they had developed a zeolite substance for use in the biogas industry for long-term storage of energy at a density 4x more than water. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to store heat both in industrial installations and in small combined heat and power plants such as those used in larger residential buildings.
Commercial and domestic
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 (energy releasing) reaction when transitioning from a dehydrated to a hydrated form make natural zeolites useful in harvesting waste heat and solar heat energy. Zeolites are also used as a molecular sieve in cryosorption style vacuum pumps.
The largest single use for zeolite is the global laundry detergent market. This amounted to 1.44 million metric tons per year of anhydrous zeolite A in 1992.
Non-clumping cat litter is often made of zeolite or diatomite.
Synthetic zeolites are used as an additive in the production process of warm mix asphalt concrete. The development of this application started in Germany in the 1990s. They help by 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. The use of synthetic zeolites in hot mixed asphalt leads to easier compaction and, to a certain degree, allows cold weather paving and longer hauls.
When added to Portland cement as a pozzolan they can reduce chloride permeability and improve workability. They reduce weight and help moderate water content while allowing for slower drying which improves break strength. When added to lime mortars and lime-metakaolin mortars, synthetic zeolite pellets can act simultaneously as pozzolanic material and water reservoir.
These thomsonite nodules have concentric rings in combinations of colors: black, white, orange, pink, purple, red, and many shades of green. Some nodules have copper inclusions and rarely will be found with copper “eyes.” When polished by a lapidary the thomsonites sometimes display a “cat’s eye” effect (chatoyancy).
Research into and development of the many biochemical and biomedical applications of zeolites, particularly the naturally occurring species heulandite, clinoptilolite andchabazite has been ongoing.
Zeolite-based oxygen concentrator systems are widely used to produce medical-grade oxygen. The zeolite is used as a molecular sieve to create purified oxygen from air using its ability to trap impurities, in a process involving the adsorption of nitrogen, leaving highly purified oxygen and up to 5% argon.
QuikClot brand hemostatic agent, which is used to stop severe bleeding,contains a calcium-loaded form of zeolite found in kaolin clay.
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. Zeolites can also act as water moderators, in which they will absorb up to 55% of their weight in water and slowly release it under the plant’s demand. This property can prevent root rot and moderate drought cycles. Clinoptilolite has also been added to chicken food, the absorption of water and ammonia by the zeolite made the birds droppings drier, less odoriferous and hence easier to handle.
Pet stores market zeolites for use as filter additives in aquariums. In aquariums, zeolites can be used to adsorb ammonia and other nitrogenous compounds. However, due to the high affinity of some zeolites for calcium, they may be less effective in hard water and may deplete calcium. Zeolite filtration is used in some marine aquaria to keep nutrient concentrations low for the benefit of corals adapted to nutrient-depleted waters.
Where and how the zeolite was formed is an important consideration for aquariums. Most Northern hemisphere natural zeolites were formed when molten lava came in contact with sea water, thereby ‘loading’ the zeolite with Na (sodium) sacrificial ions. The mechanism is well known to chemists as ion exchange. These sodium ions will speciate with other ions in solution, thus the takeup of nitrogen in ammonia, with the release of the sodium. A deposit near Bear River in southern Idaho, (US) is a fresh water variety (Na<.05%). Southern hemisphere zeolites are typically formed in freshwater and have a high calcium content.
Zeolite filters ammonia effectively, but must be used with some care, especially with delicate tropical corals that are sensitive to water chemistry and temperature.