Zeolite and Diatomaceous Earth: What Is The Difference?

Diatomaceous earth is a naturally occurring material. Zeolites occur in nature however they can also be manufactured to create a product with a specific chemical makeup and function.

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a substance made up of the tiny, fossilized exoskeletons of tiny single-celled organisms known as diatoms. It is extremely porous at the microscopic level.

Zeolites are crystalline, hydrated aluminosilicates with very rigid structures. Compositionally, zeolites are very similar to clay minerals however, their special crystalline structure remains rigid even when in water.

DE deposits can be derived from both fresh and salt water sources. There are two main types of DE – food or feed grade and “pool grade”. Diatomaceous earth derived from a freshwater source is considered Food Grade by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food Grade DE must also meet specific heavy metal content regulations.

Currently over 50 different natural zeolite minerals have been identified and over 100 zeolites have been synthesized. Each type of zeolite has a different size and function however all zeolites are molecular sieves, meaning that they selectively absorb molecules on the basis of shape, size or electrical charge (Carr,1129). The cations in zeolite are very loosely bound allowing them to be exchanged with other cations. Each type of zeolite has the ability to exchange a particular cation in its chemical makeup for another cation.

Zeolites (particularly clinoptilolite) are often added to animal feed and function much the same as food grade diatomaceous earth. Much like DE, zeolite must be fed to animals in controlled amounts. It will increase feed efficiency and decrease the stress of ammonia in animal digestive systems. The addition of food grade diatomaceous earth or zeolite into the diets of livestock including chickens, turkeys and pigs may offer faster growth rates, increased egg production, improved feed efficiency, and drier waste that has less odor.

Diatomaceous earth is commonly used in livestock feed as an anti-caking agent and pelleting aid however its use as a natural insecticide has quickly been gaining popularity. Zeolite is also known to work as an insecticide and due to its high ion exchange and adsorption capacities, natural zeolites, specifically clinoptilolite, are effective carriers of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides (Carr, 1147). However, zeolites are most commonly used for ammonium-ion removal in waste treatment, sewage treatment, pet litter and aquaculture, as odor control, for heavy metal ion removal from nuclear, mine and industrial wastes and in agriculture as a soil conditioner and fertilizer extender. Zeolite is also used in laundry detergent and water softeners.

It is very important that when utilizing both DE and zeolite that you use the proper type. Only food or feed grade diatomaceous earth can be used as an insecticide and in animal feed. Food grade DE meets very strict regulations in terms of crystalline silica (must be less that 0.1%) and heavy metal content, making it safe for animals to consume.

Obtaining the proper type of zeolite is also very important. There are several types of zeolite (including erionite and some mordenite) that are fibrous in nature and may be classified as asbestos-like materials (Carr, 1151). As well, crystalline silica commonly occurs in zeolite deposits and finely ground products may contain more than 0.1% crystalline silica.

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