Zeolites are aluminosilicate minerals filled with micropores and often used as adsorbents for various purposes. The process involved is called adsorption, not to be confused with the more common term, absorption. In this process, positive ions loosely held on the material’s surface are exchanged for other ions in a contact solution, resulting in one substance being substituted for the other. Because this process removes only molecules of a certain size while allowing others to pass, it can be used to selectively extract certain molecules from the solution. Any substance used for this is called a molecular sieve.

The reason adsorption occurs on the surface of zeolites has to do with their molecular structure. The molecules form a cage-like structure opening into an intricate network of pores running throughout the substance. These micropores give the zeolite a high ratio of surface to volume. Because the molecules are negative charged, they attract positive ions and hold them inside the cage-like molecular lattice.

Molecules beneath the surface of the zeolite have other zeolite molecules surrounding them and therefore are closed. Molecules on the surface do not have other molecules on their outer sides and are open. Positive ions trapped in their lattice structure are only loosely held and will readily exchange for other positive ions in the contact solution. Molecular sieving occurs because the micropores are regular in size and only molecules of a certain size can pass through.

By the end of the year 2010, 194 zeolites had been discovered and it is likely that more will be found. There are many uses for molecular sieves in industry and medicine, so zeolites have been applied to a wide range of jobs.

When zeolites are taken by humans, the purpose is to remove harmful materials from the body and substitute harmless substances for them. A 2009 study by North Carolina’s Eno Research found that participants given zeolite showed significant increase in the urinary excretion of heavy metals, while a placebo group showed no change. There was some fluctuation in the level of excretion, but it stabilized at a point well below initial values.

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