Pesticides. Jet fuel. Olive oil. Railroad traction gel. Skin cream. Kitty litter. As you can imagine, markets like these don’t intersect very often. However, they do share one thing in common: they are all applications for attapulgite, a naturally occurring mineral used mainly as a filter, carrier and rheology modifier.
Thanks to its unique properties, the mineral has found applications in a wide range of industries, from agriculture to pharmaceuticals and automotive and beyond.
What exactly makes attapulgite so unique and versatile?
“The material is extremely stable in liquid formulations,” says Lance Richert, Sales and New Business Development Manager of Attapulgite Products at BASF. “Attapulgite provides significant rheology stability and adsorbent properties compared to market alternatives.”
With its three-dimensional chain structure, attapulgite has one-of-a-kind colloidal, absorbent and adsorbent properties. When fully hydrated, it thickens liquids without swelling. High thermal activation gives it the large surface area and porosity it needs for optimal sorptivity.
“It has significant absorbent properties,” Richert explains. “The attapulgite can absorb a lot of liquid with impurities and things of that nature, which makes it really good for filtering. It’s also good in agricultural applications where active ingredients need to be absorbed into the granular product and released slowly.”
To take advantage of those unique attributes, you need connections to one of the limited sources of attapulgite production in North America.
In the United States, attapulgite can only be mined in southwestern Georgia and northern Florida. The mineral takes its name from the town of Attapulgus, GA, where it can be found in abundance.
BASF operates its attapulgite mines in this area, with the manufacturing facility located approximately 17 miles south of Attapulgus in Quincy, FL. The company’s attapulgite clay mining operations cover more than 16,000 acres of land in Florida and Georgia.
Quincy is the home base of BASF’s primary attapulgite operations. When the company acquired the mine in 2006, it also adopted more than a century of history: the site was first owned by Floridin Company in 1910, before it exchanged hands five times during the next few decades.
With 80 employees, today the site mines and processes attapulgite clay within two production lines: granular and gel. Processing, in a nutshell, involves drying, sizing and packaging the product for shipment.
BASF categorizes their product line in two segments: a gel attapulgite and a granular attapulgite. The first takes the form of a very fine powder while the other, as the name suggests, has a more granular or coarse consistency. The products are called Attagel® and Micro-Sorb®, respectively.
“Attapulgite provides significant rheology stability and adsorbent properties compared to market alternatives.”
Attagel works in multiple applications like automotive paint, interior paint, pharmaceutical, liquid fertilzer, traction gel for railroads and moisture control for windows, just to name a few. Similarly, its granular counterpart Micro-Sorb has been used in oil filtration, edible oils, jet fuel oils, herbicides — and, yes, kitty litter.
Richert adds that as an established chemical company, BASF is well-positioned to help customers respond to issues — from innovation to environmental regulations to everything in between.
For instance, he says, “If there’s a logistics or supply chain issue or a phenomenon that’s happening in the marketplace, we generally have the best leverage and the best teams to navigate our customers through the risks and opportunities.”
BASF’s operations obtain attapulgite clay by strip mining. When looking for a specific grade of attapulgite, the site’s team of mining experts must determine the most likely locations. The mineral is typically found near the surface, so excavation begins by removing the soil and rock on top.
Once they do, it’s a relatively straightforward matter of strip mining the material with excavators and other large machinery.
Once the attapulgite has been unearthed, there is one more important step remaining in the mining process: land reclamation.
“With land reclamation, we either improve upon the land we have strip mined or we will get it back to its original state as much as possible,” says Richert.
BASF aims to offset the environmental impacts of strip mining — which can include damage to landscapes, disruption of wildlife habitats and pollution of waterways — and make other environmental improvements whenever possible. The company engages in activities like water management, for example, as well as building small ponds, planting and relocating trees, and doing whatever is needed to improve the land's long-term sustainability.