Environmental Almanac: Local clay worth more than gold?

Although my interests generally favor living things, a few geological treasures occupy my desk at work: half a geode, dull on the outside but sparkling within; a thumb-sized chip of granite from the "elephant rock," a giant boulder left by a glacier in southern Illinois; and a rounded, flat stone I've had so long I don't remember where it came from — the shore of Lake Superior, where my wife and I stopped on our honeymoon?

To this collection I recently added a small bag of clay fragments, which I acquired on a field trip held in conjunction with the 50th annual meeting of the Clay Minerals Society on the University of Illinois campus.

Is it worth more than gold?

That's what another participant on the trip was overheard to say as he received his sample bag.

The clay fragments aren't much to look at. They were moist when we collected them and very dark gray, but as they dried they've lightened to the color of an elephant, and they crumble to a fine powder when they're ground together.

I would like to be able to tell you more about the clay based on simple observation, but I can't. That's not a dismissal of my powers of discernment, but a fact of life for people who study clay.

Geologists can distinguish among other minerals by looking at them. Quartz looks like quartz, and mica looks like mica, even without any kind of magnifying lens. But clay grains are too tiny to be classified that way.

Geologists gained the ability to distinguish among different types of clay only in the early decades of the 20th century, when they developed a process for analyzing it using X-ray diffraction. This process enables them to observe distances between planes of atoms in crystal structures. Since the set of these distances is unique in each mineral, taken together they can be thought of as a fingerprint.

And that brings us to the value of the clay fragments on my desk. They are composed of illite, which is one of three (or four, depending on who is counting) recognized groups of clay minerals, and one with a special local connection — as you might have gathered from the name. Illite was first described by Ralph Grim, who was a faculty member in the UI Department of Geology from 1948 to '67 and who is widely recognized as the "founding father" of the scientific discipline of clay mineralogy.

My illite holds extraordinary value for a clay specialist because it was collected from the Fithian illite, a deposit on the south bank of the Salt Fork River in Vermilion County that our field trip visited. The Fithian illite is what geologists call a "type locality," which is to say it's the very place Grim and his collaborators collected the samples they used to analyze and describe it.

The intrinsic value of illite is much more modest. As Steve Altaner, a UI professor of geology and organizer of the field trip, said to me when we spoke, it's really the "average Joe" of clays — useful for making bricks, perhaps, but not very sexy from a broad perspective.

Illite, he explained, lacks the moldable quality of kaolinite, a type of clay most people come into contact with regularly: It's the main component of porcelain. And it lacks the super absorbing power of smectite, or "swelling clay." Smectite's power to absorb and swell can be useful, as in cat litter, or destructive, as when it deforms and breaks concrete structures that are anchored in it.

Altaner went on to point out that illite does matter to geologists, in part because it is the second most abundant mineral in sedimentary rock after quartz. In addition, it plays a key role in a process used to gauge the timing of events that happened long ago (which for them means millions or even billions of years), events such as the formation of mountains or movements along geological faults. But that is a story for another day.

The week ahead

In collaboration with many partners, the UI Center for a Sustainable Environment is hosting the Fourth Annual Sustainability Week from Monday through Friday. Details may be found at http://sustainability.illinois.edu/SW2013.html.

Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

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