Diatomaceous earth consists of fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae. It is used as a filtration aid, as a mild abrasive, as a mechanical insecticide, as an absorbent for liquids, as cat litter, as an activator in blood clotting studies, and as a component of dynamite. As it is also heat-resistant, it can be used as a thermal insulator.
In 1866, Alfred Nobel discovered that nitroglycerin could be made much more stable if absorbed in diatomite. This allows much safer transport and handling than nitroglycerin in its raw form. He patented this mixture as dynamite in 1867, and the mixture is also referred to as guhr dynamite.
The most common use (68%) of diatomaceous earth is as a filter medium, especially for swimming pools. It has a high porosity, because it is composed of microscopically-small, coffin-like, hollow particles. It is used in chemistry under the name Celite as a filtration aid, to filter very fine particles that would otherwise pass through or clog filter paper. It is also used to filter water, particularly in the drinking water treatment process and in fish tanks, and other liquids, such as beer and wine. It can also filter syrups and sugar. Other industries such as paper, paints, ceramics, soap and detergents use it as a fulling material.
Disadvantages of using diatomaceous earth for pest control include the health risk to humans (see below), and the harm it does to many beneficial insects, including predatory beetles and bugs and many detritivores.
It has been employed as a primary ingredient in a type of cat litter. The type of silica used in cat litter comes from freshwater sources and does not pose a significant health risk to pets or humans.
Its thermal properties enable it to be used as the barrier material in some fire resistant safes.
Freshwater diatomite can be used as a growing medium in hydroponic gardens.
It is also used as a growing medium in potted plants, particularly as bonsai soil. Bonsai enthusiasts use it as a soil additive, or pot a bonsai tree in 100% Diatomaceous earth. Like perlite, vermiculite, and expanded clay, it retains water and nutrients while draining fast and freely allowing high oxygen circulation within the growing medium.
Because diatomite forms from the remains of water-borne diatoms, it is found close to either current or former bodies of water. It is generally divided into two categories based upon source: freshwater and saltwater. Freshwater diatomite is mined from dry lakebeds and is characteristically low in crystalline silica content. Saltwater diatomite contains a high crystalline silica content, making it a useful material for filters, due to the sieve-like features of the crystals.
The Earth's climate is affected by dust in the atmosphere, so locating major sources of atmospheric dust is important for climatology. Recent research indicates that surface deposits of diatomaceous earth play an important role. For instance, the largest single atmospheric dust source is the Bodélé depression in Chad, where storms push diatomite gravel over dunes, generating dust by abrasion.
The absorbent qualities of diatomite can result in a significant drying of the hands, if handled without gloves. The saltwater (industrial) form contains a highly crystalline form of silica, resulting in sharp edges. The sharpness of this version of the material makes it dangerous to breathe and a dust mask is recommended when working with it.
The type of hazard posed by inhalation depends on the form of the silica. Crystalline silica poses a serious inhalation hazard because it can cause silicosis. Amorphous silica can cause dusty lungs, but does not carry the same degree of risk as crystalline silica. Food-grade diatomite generally contains very low percentages of crystalline silica. Diatomite produced for pool filters is treated with heat, causing the formerly amorphous silicon dioxide to assume its crystalline form.
In the United States, the crystalline silica content in the dusts is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and there are guidelines for the maximum amounts allowable in the product and in the air near the breathing zone of workers.