Clay is a naturally occurring material composed primarily of fine-grained minerals, which show plasticity through a variable range of water content, and which can be hardened when dried and/or fired. Clay deposits are mostly composed of clay minerals (phyllosilicate minerals), minerals which impart plasticity and harden when fired and/or dried, and variable amounts of water trapped in the mineral structure by polar attraction. Organic materials which do not impart plasticity may also be a part of clay deposits.
Clay minerals are typically formed over long periods of time by the gradual chemical weathering of rocks (usually silicate-bearing) by low concentrations of carbonic acid and other diluted solvents. These solvents (usually acidic) migrate through the weathering rock after leaching through upper weathered layers. In addition to the weathering process, some clay minerals are formed by hydrothermal activity. Clay deposits may be formed in place as residual deposits, but thick deposits usually are formed as the result of a secondary sedimentary deposition process after they have been eroded and transported from their original location of formation. Clay deposits are typically associated with very low energy depositional environments such as large lake and marine deposits.
Quick clay is a unique type of marine clay indigenous to the glaciated terrains of Norway, Canada and Sweden. It is a highly sensitive clay, prone to liquefaction, which has been involved in several deadly landslides.
Clays exhibit plasticity when mixed with water in certain proportions. When dry, clay becomes firm and when fired in a kiln, permanent physical and chemical reactions occur which, amongst other changes, causes the clay to be converted into a ceramic material. It is because of these properties that clay is used for making pottery items, both practical and decorative. Different types of clay, when used with different minerals and firing conditions, are used to produce earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. Early humans discovered the useful properties of clay in prehistoric times, and one of the earliest artifacts ever uncovered is a drinking vessel made of sun-dried clay. Depending on the content of the soil, clay can appear in various colors, from a dull gray to a deep orange-red.
Clays sintered in fire were the first form of ceramic. Bricks, cooking pots, art objects, dishware and even musical instruments such as the ocarina can all be shaped from clay before being fired. Clay is also used in many industrial processes, such as paper making, cement production and chemical filtering. Clay is also often used in the manufacture of pipes for smoking tobacco.
Clay, being relatively impermeable to water, is also used where natural seals are needed, such as in the cores of dams, or as a barrier in landfills against toxic seepage ('lining' the landfill, preferably in combination with geotextiles).
A recent article in The Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy found that certain iron-rich clay was effective in killing bacteria.