Vermiculite is a hydrous, silicate mineral that is classified as a phyllosilicate and that expands greatly when heated. Exfoliation occurs when the mineral is heated sufficiently, and the effect is routinely produced in commercial furnaces. Vermiculite is formed by weathering or hydrothermal alteration of biotite or phlogopite. Large commercial vermiculite mines currently exist in Russia, South Africa, China, and Brazil.
It typically occurs as an alteration product at the contact between felsic and mafic or ultramafic rocks such as pyroxenites and dunites. It also occurs in carbonatites and metamorphosed magnesium rich limestone. Associated mineral phases include: corundum, apatite, serpentine and talc. It occurs interlayered with chlorite, biotite and phlogopite.
Vermiculite is a 2:1 clay, meaning it has 2 tetrahedral sheets for every one octahedral sheet. It is a limited expansion clay with a medium shrink-swell capacity. Vermiculite has a high cation exchange capacity at 100-150 meq/100 g. Vermiculite clays are weathered micas in which the potassium ions between the molecular sheets are replaced by magnesium and iron ions.
- Moulded shapes: this process involves mixing exfoliated vermiculite with inorganic bonding agents such as sodium silicate and potassium[clarification needed] to produce an 'earth damp' mixture. This material is then hydraulically pressed into shape in a mould, and then heat cured at temperatures up to 180 °C for up to 24 hours depending upon the thickness of the moulded part. Such parts can withstand service temperatures of up to 1150 °C and are often used in the aluminium smelting industry as back-up insulation behind the carbon cathode in the potcells which contain the molten mixture of cryolite and alumina. The moulded shapes and boards are used in:
- Calcium silicate boards: exfoliated vermiculite is added to a calcium silicate slurry, this is then dewatered by pressing or by using one of the Fourdriner/Magnani/Hatschek processes to form a flat board which is then heat cured under pressure (typically 10-15 bar) for periods up to 24 hours.
- Brake linings: finer grades of exfoliated vermiculite are being used in brake linings primarily for the automotive market. The properties of vermiculite that make it an appropriate choice for use in brake linings include its thermal resistance, ease of addition to other raw materials to achieve a homogenous mix and its shape and surface characteristics
- Roof and floor screeds and insulating concretes: exfoliated vermiculite (typically the finer grades) can be added at site to Portland cement and other aggregates, rheological aids and water to produce roof and floor concrete screeds or lightweight concrete which have the benefit of being lightweight and insulating. In many cases vermiculite based roof screeds are often used in conjunction with other insulation materials such as polystyrene board to form a total roofing system. A bituminous binder can also be used with exfoliated vermiculite can to produce a dry, lightweight roof screed which has the advantages of low thermal conductivity, low moisture content and ease of placement by pouring from the bag and then tamping.
- Soilless growing media: exfoliated vermiculite is combined with other materials such as peat or composted pine bark compost to produce soilless growing media for the professional horticulturalist and for the home gardener. These mixes promote faster root growth and gives quick anchorage to young roots. The mixture helps retain air, plant food and moisture, releasing them as the plant requires them. These mixes were pioneered by Boodley and Sheldrake
- Seed germination: either used alone or mixed with soil or peat, vermiculite is used to germinate seeds. Very little watering is required. When vermiculite is used alone, seedlings should be fed with a weak fertilizer solution when the first true leaves appear. A tablespoon of soluble fertilizer per one imperial gallon (3.78 : 1) of water is the recommended mix
- Storing bulbs and root crops: pour vermiculite around bulbs placed in container. If clumps are dug, allow to dry for a few hours in the sun and then place in cartons or bushel baskets and cover with vermiculite. The absorptive power of vermiculite acts as a regulator that prevents mildew and moisture fluctuation during the storage period. It will not absorb moisture from the inside of stored tubers, but it does take up free water from the outside, preventing storage rot.
- As a soil conditioner: Where the native soil is heavy or sticky, gentle mixing of vermiculite up to one-half the volume of the soil is recommended. This creates air channels and allows the soil mix to breathe. Mixing vermiculite in flower and vegetable gardens or in potted plants will provide the necessary air to maintain vigorous plant growth. Where soils are sandy, mixing of vermiculite into the soil will allow the soil to hold water and air needed for growth.
- As loose-fill insulation: Exfoliated vermiculite treated with a water repellent is used to fill the pores and cavities of masonry construction and hollow blockwork to enhance fire ratings (e.g. Underwriters Laboratories Wall and Partition designs), insulation and acoustic performance. Coarse grades of exfoliated vermiculite can be used to insulate lofts and attics. Exfoliated vermiculite has the benefit of being easy to use with application consisting of pouring the vermiculite between the joists and then leveling
- Refractory/Insulation gunning and castable mixes: exfoliated vermiculite can be combined with high alumina (also known as calcium aluminate) cements and other aggregates such as expanded shale, clay and slate to produce refractory/insulation concretes and mortars. In the early days of their uses these products were batched at or very close to the place of installation, this continues to be the case in some limited circumstances, however more and more use is being made of pre-batched proprietary mixes. Mixes containing vermiculite are used in areas where strength and corrosion/abrasion resistance are of secondary importance, the most important factor being the insulation performance of the in place refractory lining. These mixes find their uses in such areas in industries including iron/steel, cement and hydrocarbon processing
- As a constituent of a coating: vermiculite dispersions are typically either chemically or physically very finely delaminated vermiculite in a fluid medium. These dispersions can be used to make vermiculite 'paper' sheet by simply pouring them on to a piece of smooth low surface energy plastic and allowing to dry, the resulting sheet can then be peeled off the plastic.Typical end uses for vermiculite dispersions include in high temperature coatings or binders for construction materials, gaskets, specialty papers/textiles, oxidation resistant coating on carbon based composites, and as barrier coatings for films.
- As a packing material, valued for its high absorbency
- Waste treatment: the cation exchange capacity (up to 1000 milliequivalents per kg) of vermiculite allows it to be used in fluid purification processes for waste water, chemical processing and the pollution control of air in mines and gases in industrial processes. In addition to its ion exchange properties exfoliated vermiculite will retain liquids within the inter-laminar voids of the individual particles as well as between the particles themselves.
- As a substrate for various animals and/or incubation of eggs
- As a lightweight aggregate for plaster, proprietary concrete compounds, firestop mortar and cementitious spray fireproofing: Exfoliated vermiculite is used in both hand and spray applied general building plasters to improve coverage, ease of handling, adhesion to a wide variety of substrates, fire resistance, and resistance to chipping/cracking/shrinkage.
- As an additive to fireproof wallboard
- As a component of the interior fill for firestop pillows, along with graphite
- As a carrier for dry handling and slow release of agricultural chemicals
- As a growing medium for hydroponics.
- As a hot topping: both exfoliated and crude vermiculite have been used for hot topping in the steel industry. When poured onto molten metal crude vermiculite exfoliates immediately and forms an insulating layer allowing the material to be transported to the next production process without losing too much heat.
- Used to permit slow cooling of hot pieces in glassblowing, lampwork, steelwork, and glass beadmaking
- Used in in-ground swimming pools to provide a smooth pool base: Finer grades of exfoliated vermiculite plus Portland cement may be combined either on site or a factory premix to provide a base for swimming pool vinyl liners. These mixes are either pumped into place using a rotor stator pump or hand poured.
- Used in commercial hand warmers
- Used as a sterile medium for the incubation of reptile eggs
- Light-weight insulative concrete
- Used in AGA cookers as insulation
- Used in explosives storage as a blast mitigant
- Used to absorb hazardous liquids for solid disposal
- Used in gas fireplaces to simulate embers
- Used as part of a substrate for fungi cultivation
Commercial manufacture of exfoliated vermiculite
In 2005, South Africa was the top producer of vermiculite with about 40% world share followed by the USA and China, reports the British Geological Survey.
While some exfoliators focus on only a few of the possible applications, others can provide vermiculite products for all its applications. It is common for vermiculite exfoliators to exfoliate perlite also, as both are often sold together. For those who want to set up a new exfoliation process, it is possible to find expert consultants to advise in the design and construction of the desired facilities. Vermiculite exfoliators have an international trade association called The Vermiculite Association to represent the industry's interests and to exchange information. Many of its members also maintain memberships in The Perlite Institute.
While spray-applied asbestos-containing fireproofing and girder insulation is still widely found in old construction, in some parts of the world it is still being used. Recent improvements of these sprays replace asbestos with aggregates of MMMF (man-made-mineral-fibres) including rockwool and ceramic fibres. The cementitious versions of these fireproofing sprays contain Portland cement and lightweight aggregates of the plaster vermiculite. Vermiculite ore, particularly that ore extracted from the Libby Mine in Libby, Montana, U.S.A. may contain asbestos. The U.S. EPA advises that vermiculite from the Libby Mine should be considered to be contaminated with asbestos. Since the Libby mine has been closed since 1990, currently produced ores are considered safer because they have lower asbestos content. Danger of exposure to asbestos in these spray-applied materials is greatly increased by not following proper industrial hygiene procedures and by not following abatement regulations.
|This section may be confusing or unclear to readers. (November 2010)|
Although not all vermiculite contains asbestos, some products were made with vermiculite that contained asbestos until the early 1990s. Vermiculite mines throughout the world are now regularly tested for it and are supposed to sell products that contain no asbestos. The former vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, did have tremolite asbestos as well as winchite and richterite (both fibrous amphiboles) — in fact, it was formed underground through essentially the same geologic processes as the contaminants. A vermiculite mine in Virginia has also been found to be contaminated by asbestos.[broken citation]
Controversy over health risks
The largest and oldest vermiculite mine in the United States was started in the 1920s, at Libby, Montana, and the vermiculite was sold under the commercial name Zonolite. The Zonolite brand and the mine was acquired by the W.R. Grace Company in 1963. Mining operations at the Libby site stopped in 1990 in response to asbestos contamination. While in operation, the Libby mine may have produced 80% of the world's supply of vermiculite.
The United States government estimates that vermiculite was used in more than 35 million homes, but does not recommend its removal. Nevertheless, homes or structures containing vermiculite or vermiculite insulation dating from before the mid 1990s—and especially those known to contain the "Zonolite" brand—may contain asbestos, and therefore may be a health concern.
An article published in the Salt Lake Tribune on December 3, 2006, reported that vermiculite and Zonolite had been found to contain asbestos, which had led to cancers such as those found in asbestos-related cases. The article stated that there had been a "cover-up" by W.R. Grace Company and others regarding the health risks associated with vermiculite and that several sites in the Salt Lake Valley had been remediated by the EPA when they were shown to be contaminated with asbestos. W.R. Grace Company has vigorously denied these charges.
The vermiculite deposit at the mine in Libby, Montana, was (and is) heavily contaminated with asbestos.[broken citation][dead link] Numerous people were knowingly[broken citation] exposed to the harmful dust of vermiculite that contained asbestos. Unfortunately, the mine had been operating since the 1920s, and environmental and industrial controls were virtually non-existent until the mine was purchased by the W.R. Grace Company in 1963. Yet, knowing the human health risks, the mining company still continued to operate there until 1990. Consequently, many of the former miners and residents of Libby have been affected and continue to suffer health problems. Over 200 people in the town have died from asbestos-related disease due to contamination from vermiculite mining from nearby Zonolite Mountain, where soil samples were found to be loaded with fibrous tremolite (known to be a very toxic form of asbestos), and countless others there who insulated their homes with Zonolite have succumbed to asbestos-related diseases, most of whom never were employed in environments where asbestos was an issue.[broken citation]
After a 1999 Seattle Post-Intelligencer story claimed that asbestos-related disease was common in the town, the EPA, in response to political pressure, made cleanup of the site a priority and called Libby the worst case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in U.S. history.[broken citation] The EPA has spent $120 million in Superfund money on cleanup. In October 2006, W.R. Grace Company tried to appeal the fines levied on them from the EPA, but the Supreme Court rejected the appeal. The United States government is also pursuing criminal charges against several former executives and managers of the mine for allegedly disregarding and covering up health risks to employees. They are also accused of obstructing the government's cleanup efforts and wire fraud. To date, according to the indictment, approximately 1,200 residents of the Libby area have been identified as suffering from some kind of asbestos-related abnormality. Jury selection was to have been completed in February 2009. The case ended in acquittals on May 8, 2009.[broken citation] On June 17, 2009, the EPA issued a public health emergency in and near Libby, thereby allowing federal agencies to provide funding for health care, and for removal of contaminated insulation from affected homes.
- Passive fire protection
- Sodium silicate
- List of minerals
- Square foot gardening
- http://www.mindat.org/min-4170.html Mindat.org
- http://rruff.geo.arizona.edu/doclib/hom/vermiculite.pdf Handbook of Mineralogy
- http://www.seattlepi.com/uncivilaction/asb04.shtml. Missing or empty
- "Libby Site Background". United States Environmental Protection Agency.
- "Asbestos dangers remained hidden for decades". Salt Lake City Tribune.
- AP Feature on Libby, MT: "For asbestos-ravaged town, questions persist." Accessed May 24, 2010.
- Dean, Cornelia. http://www.hereandnow.org/shows/2009/02/rundown-219/
- "Deadly dust". CBC News. 2003-02-07.
- "A town left to die: hundreds of miners and family members killed and sickened". Seattle PI. 1999-11-18.[dead link]
- "Libby Asbestos". United States Environmental Protection Agency.
- Verhovek, Sam Howe (2006-10-11). "Firm Must Pay Asbestos Costs". LA Times.
- "W.R. Grace and executives charged with fraud, obstruction of justice, and endangering Libby, Montana community". 2005-02-07.
- Johnson, Carrie (2007-07-13). "Asbestos Evidentiary Ruling Goes Against Grace". The Washington Post. pp. D05.
- Johnson, Kirk (2009-02-19). "Ex-Grace Officials on Trial in Asbestos Poisoning". The New York Times. pp. A1.
- Dean, Cornelia. U.S. Cites Emergency in Asbestos-Poisoned Town The New York Times, June 18, 2009.
- The Vermiculite Association
- Cornell Boodley and Sheldrake 
- US Geological Survey Vermiculite Section
- Environmental Working Group
- United States Environmental Protection Agency
- The Perlite Association 
- Petition for writ of certiorari to U.S. Supreme Court (April 27, 2006)
- U.S. EPA: Additional Frequent Questions on Vermiculite
- Promat High Temperature Insulation