Chemistry and physics do wonders for material science, sometimes expanding the applications of products we may view as having the "ew" factor.
Take sepiolite, for example. The absorbent mineral used in some cat litters may amount to more than being pawed at and discarded every week. An analysis to be published in the October issue of the journal American Mineralogist suggests differences in sepiolite's composition and tunnel formations account for why liquids tend to adhere to crystal structures within the mineral.
To be fair, sepiolite has other uses as well, including absorbents in spillage solutions, components in animal feed and adhesives in tobacco pipes roof panels and waste treatments. But further examining the mineral opens the door to create synthetic materials that mimic sepiolite.
The idea is that if scientists can understand which conditions and temperatures yield the most efficient form of sepiolite, perhaps the mineral can be made synthetically rather than mined for.
One press release focuses on the potential to use sepiolite as a cohesive agent in drugs. Could an edible, synthetic form of sepiolite be made available someday?
It's unclear, but so far, there's nothing in the new paper to suggest sepiolite would be a safe option. In fact, making claims about consuming the mineral seems to expand beyond the paper's original purpose: to better understand sepiolite's composition using X-rays and electron particles. Minerals such as asbestos were first reveled because of their potential. But now we know that material and man don't always mix safely.
In the experiment, researchers from France and Spain used X-ray diffraction methods on 20 sepiolite crystal samples from a handful of mines around the world. The team found a way to link the mineral's fiber structure with its atomic composition. The challenge was that sepiolite comprises microscopic needle structures that vary, with some samples possessing more than one type of structure.
Although the research would make it easier to develop an efficient form of synthetic sepiolite, there's no evidence suggesting it can be safely used in humans — yet.
First photo by eviltomthai/Flickr.com
Second photo by Helix84/Wikimedia Commons