Bentonite is a naturally occurring plastic clay. Its volume increases several times on contact with water to create a gelatinous, viscous fluid. Bentonite’s properties of water absorption and viscosity make it a valuable material for a wide range of applications. It is frequently used as a binding, sealing, absorbing and lubricating agent. The European bentonite producers are represented by the European Bentonite Association (EUBA).
Bentonite is a plastic clay generated frequently from the alteration of volcanic ash, consisting predominantly of smectite minerals, usually montmorillonite. Other smectite group minerals include hectorite, saponite, beidelite and nontronite. Smectites are clay minerals, i.e. they consist of individual crystallites the majority of which are <2μm in largest dimension. Smectite crystallites themselves are three-layer clay minerals. They consist of two tetrahedral layers and one octahedral layer. In montmorillonite tetrahedral layers consisting of [SiO4]- tetrahedrons enclose the [M(O5,OH)]-octahedron layer (M = and mainly Al, Mg, but Fe is also often found). The silicate layers have a slight negative charge that is compensated by exchangeable ions in the intercrystallite region. The charge is so weak that the cations (in natural form, predominantly Ca2+, Mg2+ or Na+ ions) can be adsorbed in this region with their hydrate shell. The extent of hydration produces intercrystalline swelling. Depending on the nature of their genesis, bentonites contain a variety of accessory minerals in addition to montmorillonite. These minerals may include quartz, feldspar, calcite and gypsum. The presence of these minerals could impact the industrial value of the deposit, reducing or increasing its value depending on the application. Bentonite presents strong colloidal properties and its volume increases several times when coming into contact with water, creating a gelatinous and viscous fluid. The special properties of bentonite (hydration, swelling, water absorption, viscosity, thixotropy) make it a valuable material for a wide range of uses and applications. Bentonite deposits are normally exploited by quarrying. Extracted bentonite is distinctly solid, even with a moisture content of approximately 30%. The material is initially crushed and, if necessary, activated with the addition of soda ash (Na2CO3). Bentonite is subsequently dried (air and/or forced drying) to reach a moisture content of approximately 15%. According to the final application, bentonite is either sieved (granular form) or milled (into powder and superfine powder form). For special applications, bentonite is purified by removing the associated gangue minerals, or treated with acids to produce acid activated bentonite (bleaching earths), or treated with organics to produce organoclays.