Sodium bentonite expands when wet, absorbing as much as several times its dry mass in water. Because of its excellent colloidal properties, it is often used in drilling mud for oil and gas wells and for geotechnical and environmental investigations.
The property of swelling also makes sodium bentonite useful as a sealant, especially for the sealing of subsurface disposal systems for spent nuclear fuel and for quarantining metal pollutants of groundwater. Similar uses include making slurry walls, waterproofing of below-grade walls, and forming other impermeable barriers, e.g., to seal off the annulus of a water well, to plug old wells, or to line the base of landfills to prevent migration of leachate. It is also used to form a barrier around newly planted trees to constrain root growth so as to prevent damage to nearby pipes, footpaths and other infrastructure.
Sodium bentonite can also be “sandwiched” between synthetic materials to create geo-synthetic clay liners (GCL) for the aforementioned purposes. This technique allows for more convenient transport and installation, and it greatly reduces the volume of sodium bentonite required.
Various surface modifications to sodium bentonite improve some rheological or sealing performance in geoenviromental applications, for example, the addition of polymers.
Calcium bentonite is a useful adsorbent of ions in solution, as well as fats and oils, being a main active ingredient of fuller’s earth, probably one of the earliest industrial cleaning agents. Calcium bentonite may be converted to sodium bentonite (termed sodium beneficiation or sodium activation) to exhibit many of sodium bentonite’s properties by a process known as “ion exchange” (patented in 1935 by Germans U Hofmann and K Endell). In common usage, this means adding 5–10% of a soluble sodium salt such as sodium carbonate to wet bentonite, mixing well, and allowing time for the ion exchange to take place and water to remove the exchanged calcium Some properties, such as viscosity and fluid loss of suspensions, of sodium-beneficiated calcium bentonite (or sodium-activated bentonite) may not be fully equivalent to those of natural sodium bentonite. For example, residual calcium carbonates (formed if exchanged cations are insufficiently removed) may result in inferior performance of the bentonite in geosynthetic liners.
Also known as potash bentonite or K-bentonite, potassium bentonite is a potassium-rich illitic clay formed from alteration of volcanic ash.