Zeolites in Agricultural Waste Reuse Processes

Zeolites, natural and synthetic, have been widely studied regarding their suitability to be used in many different environmental applications worldwide Zeolites are natural crystalline aluminosilicates. They are among the most common minerals present in sedimentary rocks. Zeolites occur in rocks of diverse age, lithology, and geologic setting. They are generally considered to be low-cost, safe and environment-friendly materials, suitable for a vast variety of uses. The most well-known natural zeolites are clinoptilolite, erionite, chabazite, heulandite, mordenite, stilbite, and phillipsite.

Structurally, zeolites are tectosilicates exhibiting an open three-dimensional structure containing cations needed to balance the electrostatic charge of the framework of silica and alumina tetrahedral units. Pores and voids are the key characteristics of zeolite materials. The pores and interconnected voids are occupied by cations and water molecules. The internal surface area of these channels are reported to reach as much as several hundred square meters per gram of zeolite, making zeolites an extremely effective ion exchangers.

The Si/Al ratio is an important characteristic of zeolites. The charge imbalance due to the presence of aluminum in the zeolite framework determines the ion-exchange property of zeolites and is expected to induce potential acidic sites. The Si/Al ratio is inversely proportional to the cation content, however directly proportional to the thermal stability. Cations can be exchanged by ion exchange and water can be removed reversibly by application of heat.

The unique physical and chemical properties of zeolites, coupled with their abundance in sedimentary deposits and in rocks derived from volcanic parent materials, have made them useful in many agricultural applications. Most of the initial research on the use of zeolites in agriculture took place in the 1960s in Japan. A brief review of the literature has pointed out that Japanese farmers have used zeolite rock over years to control the moisture content and to increase the pH of acidic volcanic soils. Ion-exchange properties of zeolites can be utilized in agriculture because of their large porosity and high cation-exchange capacity. They can be used as both carriers of nutrients and a medium to free nutrients. Zeolites are important materials with very broad applications in agriculture and environmental engineering. Zeolite incorporation in soil was found to increase crop yields and to promote nutrient use efficiency. Other possible uses being investigated include applications as a carrier of slow-release fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides, and as a trap for heavy metals in soils.

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