The term was originally coined in the 18th century by a Swedish mineralogist named Axel Fredrik Cronstedt who observed, upon rapidly heating a natural mineral, that the stones began to dance about as the water evaporated. Using the Greek words which mean "stone that boils," he called this material zeolite.
More than 150 zeolite types have been synthesized, and 48 naturally occurring zeolites are known. Zeolites have an "open" 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 are: analcime, chabazite, 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 crystallized 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 diameters of the tunnels. These are conventionally defined by the ring size of the aperture, where, for example, the term "8ring" refers to a closed loop that is built from 8 tetrahedrally coordinated silicon (or aluminium) atoms and 8 oxygen atoms. These rings are not always perfectly flat and 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 pore openings for all rings of one size are not identical.
Currently, the world’s annual production of natural zeolite is about 4 million tons. Of this quantity, 2.6 million tons are shipped to Chinese markets to be used in the concrete industry. Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Australia, and Asia are world leaders in supplying the world’s demand for natural zeolite. By comparison, only 57,400 metric tons (source: U.S. Geological Survey, 2004) of zeolite (only 1% of the world’s current production) is produced in North America; only recently has North America realized the potential for current and future markets. There are several types of synthetic zeolites that form by a process of slow crystallization of a silica-alumina gel in the presence of alkalis and organic templates. One of the important processes used to carry out zeolite synthesis is sol-gel processing. The product properties depend on reaction mixture composition, pH of the system, operating temperature, pre-reaction 'seeding' time, reaction time as well as the templates used. In sol-gel process, other elements (metals, metal oxides) can be easily incorporated. The silicalite sol formed by the hydrothermal method is very stable. Also the ease of scaling up this process makes it a favorite route for zeolite synthesis.
Synthetic zeolites hold some key advantages over their natural analogs. The synthetics can, of course, be manufactured in a uniform, phase-pure state. It is also possible to manufacture desirable zeolite structures which 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. Finally, zeolite manufacturing processes engineered by man require significantly less time than the 50 to 50,000 years prescribed by nature. Disadvantages include the inability to create crystals with dimensions of a comparable size to their natural counterparts.
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. However at present, the true potential to improve the handling of such gases in this manner remains unknown.
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 (heat producing) reaction when transitioning from a dehydrated to a hydrated form, make natural zeolites useful in harvesting waste heat and solar heat energy.
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.
Synthetic zeolite is also being used as an additive in the production process of warm mix asphalt concrete. The development of this application started in Europe (Germany) in the 1990s. It helps 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. Other than that the usage of synthetic zeolite 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, it can reduce chloride permeability and improve workability. It reduces weight and helps moderate water content while allowing for slower drying which improves break strength.
These thomsonite nodules have concentric rings in combinations of colors, black, white, orange, pink, red and many shades of green. Some nodules have copper as inclusions and rarely will be found with copper "eyes". When polished by a lapidary the thomsonites sometimes display chatoyancy.
Where and how the zeolite was formed is an important consideration for aquariums. Northern hemisphere natural zeolites were formed when molten lava came in contact with sea water, thereby 'loading' the zeolite with Na (sodium) sacrificial ions. These sodium ions will speciate with other ions in solution, thus the takeup of nitrogen in ammonia, with the release of the sodium. In southern hemisphere zeolites, such as found in Australia, which were formed with fresh water, thus the calcium uptake on formation.
Zeolite is an effective ammonia filter, but must be used with some care, especially with delicate tropical corals which are sensitive to water chemistry and temperature.