Today, we’re going to meet a rock, a talented rock called a zeolite. On Engineering Works!
To most of us, a rock is a rock. But imagine an odd rock with a network of pores so small they can trap molecules, even atoms. Or trap some things and let others through, like a sieve. You could do a lot with a rock like that. It’s a zeolite.
Zeolites turn up in a lot of everyday products – laundry detergent. Zeolites soften the water so the soap works better and your clothes come out bright and clean. Cat litter – they soak up the smell, so you and Tabby can share the same space. Or water filters – zeolites snag impurities so your drinking water tastes better.
Zeolites are also at the heart of oil refining, where they help transform crude oil into gasoline and other products. They’re a multi-billion-dollar industry around the world.
Zeolites were first found in nature, and each one is good for a particular job. Engineers have created more than a hundred for specialized jobs. Making the right zeolite for the right job is still mostly a mystery, but engineers are working on it.
At Texas A&M, for example, chemical engineers are trying to figure out how to turn silicon, aluminum and oxygen – zeolites’ building blocks – into a zeolite with the exact properties you need.
Talking about zeolites is thirsty work. But at least the water tastes good. Ahh!