Sepiolite is a lightweight porous mineral used in cat litter and other applications. The extraordinary properties of this clay make it a highly sought after mineral, despite its scarcity in the Earth's crust: only a few mines worldwide extract it, several of them clustered near Madrid in Spain, the world's biggest exporter of this material.
Sepiolite has been known since Roman times when it was used to filter and purify wine, but our understanding at the atomic scale of how these tiny crystals absorb enormous amounts of liquid has remained elusive until now. A team of scientists from Spain and France has obtained for the first time single-crystal X-ray diffraction images of sepiolite, opening the path to industrial synthesis and further improvement of its properties. The results will be published in the October 2011 issue of the journal American Mineralogist.The team included scientists from the Universities of Madrid and Salamanca in Spain, of the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL), the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), and the Spanish CRG Beamline at the ESRF (SpLine), all in Grenoble (France).
The wide variety of sepiolites studied is now enabling the team to correlate between the physical and chemical properties of a given type with its atomic structure. "Today, no synthetic clay surpasses natural sepiolite. This is about to change as our understanding of their atomic structure will guide the synthesis of sepiolites from other, more abundant clay minerals and the design of completely new materials for use in catalysis and batteries", says Mercedes Suárez from the University of Salamanca.
"The future of sepiolites in the household is outside the litterbox. Already today, they absorb liquid spillages and odours and stabilise aqueous products like paints, resins and inks. In synthetic form, they could bind food products and stabilise drugs, extending their shelf life and making sepiolite an edible product", concludes Manuel Sanchez del Rio.
Reference: Manuel Sanchez del Rio, Emilia Garcia-Romero, Mercedes Suarez, Ivan da Silva, Luis Fuentes Montero, and Gema Martinez-Criado. Variability in sepiolite: Diffraction studies. American Mineralogist (in press). DOI : 10.2138/am.2011.3761.
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