The property of swelling also makes sodium bentonite useful as a sealant, especially for the sealing of subsurface disposal systems for spent nuclear fuel and for quarantining metal pollutants of groundwater. Similar uses include making slurry walls, waterproofing of below-grade walls and forming other impermeable barriers: e.g., to seal off the annulus of a water well, to plug old wells, or as a liner in the base of landfills to prevent migration of leachate.
Sodium bentonite can also be "sandwiched" between synthetic materials to create geo-synthetic liners (GSL) for the aforementioned purposes. This technique allows for more convenient transport and installation and it greatly reduces the volume of sodium bentonite required.
Various surface modifications to sodium bentonite improve some rheological or sealing performance in geoenviromental applications, for example the addidtion of polymers .
Calcium bentonite is a useful adsorbent of ions in solution. as well as fats and oils, being a main active ingredient of Fuller's Earth, probably one of mankind's first industrial cleaning agents . Calcium bentonite may be converted to sodium bentonite (termed sodium beneficiation or sodium activation) to exhibit many of sodium bentonite's properties by a process known as "ion exchange" (patented in 1935 by Germans U Hofmann and K Endell). Commonly this means adding 5-10% of a soluble sodium salt such as sodium carbonate to wet bentonite, mixing well, and allowing time for the ion exchange to take place and water to remove the exchanged calcium. Some properties, such as viscosity and fluid loss of suspensions, of sodium beneficiated calcium bentonite (or sodium activated bentonite) may not be fully equivalent to natural sodium bentonite. For example, residual calcium carbonates (formed if exchanged cations are insufficiently removed) may result in inferior performance of the bentonite in geosynthetic liners
Pascalite is a commercial name for the calcium bentonite clay.
Bentonite can be used in cement, adhesives, ceramic bodies, and cat litter. Bentonite is also used as a binding agent in the manufacture of taconite pellets as used in the steelmaking industry. Fuller's earth, an ancient dry cleaning substance, is finely ground bentonite, typically used for purifying transformer oil. Bentonite, in small percentages, is used as an ingredient in commercially designed clay bodies and ceramic glazes. Bentonite clay is also used in pyrotechnics to make end plugs and rocket nozzles, and can also be used as a therapeutic face pack for the treatment of acne/oily skin. Clearasil, an acne cream, uses bentonite as an agent to absorb excess sebum, clearing pores.
The ionic surface of bentonite has a useful property in making a sticky coating on sand grains. When a small proportion of finely ground bentonite clay is added to hard sand and wetted, the clay binds the sand particles into a moldable aggregate known as green sand used for making molds in sand casting. Some river deltas naturally deposit just such a blend of such clay silt and sand, creating a natural source of excellent molding sand that was critical to ancient metalworking technology. Modern chemical processes to modify the ionic surface of bentonite greatly intensify this stickiness, resulting in remarkably dough-like yet strong casting sand mixes that stand up to molten metal temperatures.
The same effluvial deposition of bentonite clay onto beaches accounts for the variety of plasticity of sand from place to place for building sand castles. Beach sand consisting of only silica and shell grains does not mold well compared to grains coated with bentonite clay. This is why some beaches are much better for building sand castles than others.
The self-stickiness of bentonite allows high-pressure ramming or pressing of the clay in molds to produce hard, refractory shapes, such as model rocket nozzles. Indeed, to test whether a particular brand of cat litter is bentonite, simply ram a sample with a hammer into a sturdy tube with a close-fitting rod; bentonite will form a very hard, consolidated plug that is not easily crumbled.
Bentonite also has the interesting property of adsorbing relatively large amounts of protein molecules from aqueous solutions. It is therefore uniquely useful in the process of winemaking, where it is used to remove excessive amounts of protein from white wines. Were it not for this use of bentonite, many or most white wines would precipitate undesirable flocculent clouds or hazes upon exposure to warmer temperatures, as these proteins denature. It also has the incidental use of inducing more rapid clarification of both red and white wines.
In 2005, U.S. was the top producer of bentonite with almost one-third world share followed by China and Greece, reports the British Geological Survey.
The absorbent clay was given the name bentonite by an American geologist sometime after its discovery in about 1890 — after the Benton Formation (a geological stratum, at one time Fort Benton) in Montana's Rock Creek area. Other modern discoveries include montmorillonite discovered in 1847 in Montmorillon in the Vienne prefecture of France, in Poitou-Charentes, South of the Loire Valley.
Most high-grade natural sodium bentonite is produced from the western United States in an area between the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. Mixed sodium/calcium bentonite is mined in Greece, Australia, India, Russia and the Ukraine. In the United States, calcium bentonite is primarily mined in Mississippi and Alabama. Other major locations producing calcium bentonite include Germany, Greece, Turkey, and China.
It should be noted that in some countries like the UK and US, calcium bentonite is known as fuller's earth, a term which is also used to refer to attapulgite, a mineralogically distinct clay mineral but exhibiting similar properties.