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Current Category » Introduction to Soil Science

Types of Soil Colloids

There are four major types of colloids present in soil
1. Layer silicate clays
2. Iron and aluminum oxide clays (sesquioxide clays)
3. Allophane and associated amorphous clays
4. Humus.

Layer silicate clays, iron and aluminum oxide clays, allophane and associated amorphous clays are inorganic colloids while humus is an organic colloid.

1. Layer silicate clays: These are most important silicate clays and are known as phyllosilicates (Phyllon - leaf) because of their leaf-like or plate like structure. They are comprised of two kinds of horizontal sheets. One dominated by silicon and other by aluminum and/or magnesium.

Silica Tetrahedron: The basic building block for the silica-dominated sheet is a unit composed of one silicon atom surrounded by four oxygen atoms. It is called the silica tetrahedron because of its four-sided configuration. An interlocking array or a series of these silica tetrahedral tied together horizontally by shared oxygen anions gives a tetrahedral sheet.
Alumina Octahedron: Aluminium and/or magnesium ions are the key cations in the second type of sheet. An aluminium (or magnesium) ion surrounded by six oxygen atoms or hydroxyl group gives an eight sided building block termed octahedron. Numerous octahedra linked together horizontally comprise the octahedral sheet. An aluminum dominated sheet is known as a dioctahedral sheet, whereas one dominated by magnesium is called a trioctahedral sheet. The distinction is due to the fact that two aluminum ions in a dioctahedral sheet satisfy the same negative charge from surrounding oxygen and hydroxyls as three magnesium ions in a trioctahedral sheet.

The tetrahedral and octahedral sheets are the fundamental structural units of silicate clays. They, in turn, are bound together within the crystals by shared oxygen atoms into different layers. The specific nature and combination of sheets in these layers vary from one type of clay to another and largely control the physical and chemical properties of each clay.
Types of Silicate Clay Minerals: On the basis of the number and arrangement of tetrahedral (silica) and octahedral (alumina-magnesia) sheets contained in the crystal units or layers, silicate clays are classified into three different groups

  1. 1 :1 Type clay minerals

  2. 2:1 Type clay minerals

  3. 2: 1: 1 Type clay minerals

A. 1:1 Type Minerals: The layers of the 1:1-type minerals are made up of one tetrahedral (silica) sheet combined with one octahedral (alumina) sheet-hence the terminology. In soils, kaolinite is the most prominent member of this group, which includes hallosite, nacrite, and dickite.

The tetrahedral and octahedral sheets in a layer of a kaolinite crystal are held together tightly by oxygen atoms, which are mutually shared by the silicon and aluminum cations in their respective sheets. These layers, in turn, are held together by hydrogen bonding. Consequently, the structure is fixed and no expansion ordinarily occurs between layers when the clay is wetted.

Cations and water do not enter between the structural layers of a 1:1 type mineral particle. The effective surface of kaolinite is thus restricted to its outer faces or to its external surface area. Also, there is little isomorphous substitution in this 1:1 type mineral. Along with the relatively low surface area of kaolinite, this accounts for its low capacity to adsorb cations.

Kaolinite crystals usually are hexagonal in shape. In comparison with other clay particles, they are large in size, ranging from 0.10 to 5 um across with the majority falling within the 0.2 to 2 um range. Because of the strong binding forces between their structural layers, kaolinite particles are not readily broken down into extremely thin plates.
Kaolinite exhibits very little plasticity (capability of being molded), cohesion, shrinkage, and swelling.

B. 2:1-Type Minerals: The crystal units (layers) of these minerals are characterized by an octahedral sheet sandwiched between two tetrahedral sheets. Three general groups have this basic crystal structure.

i) Expanding type: smectites and vermiculite
ii) Non-expanding type: mica (illite)

Expanding Minerals: The smectite group is noted for interlayer expansion, which occurs by swelling when the minerals are wetted, the water entering the interlayer space and forcing the layers apart. Montmorillonite is the most prominent member of this group in soils, although beidellite, nontronite, and saponite are also found.

The flake-like crystals of smectites (e.g., Montmorillonite) are composed of an expanding lattice 2:1-type clay mineral. Each layer is made up of an octahedral sheet sandwiched between two tetrahedral (silica) sheets. There is little attraction between oxygen atoms in the bottom tetrahedral sheet of one unit and those in the top tetrahedral sheet of another. This permits a ready and variable space between layers, which is occupied by water and exchangeable cations. This internal surface far exceeds the surface around the outside of the crystal. In montmorillonite magnesium has replaced aluminum in some sites of the octahedral sheet. Likewise, some silicon atoms in the tetrahedral sheet may be replaced by aluminum. These substitutions give rise to a negative charge.

These minerals show high cation exchange capacity, marked swelling and shrinkage properties. Wide cracks commonly form as smectite dominated soils (e.g., Vertisols) are dried. The dry aggregates or clods are very hard, making such soils difficult to till.

Vermiculites are also 2: 1 type minerals in that an octahedral sheet occurs between two tetrahedral sheets. In most soils vermiculites, the octahedral sheet is aluminum dominated (dioctahedral), although magnesium dominated (trioctahedral) vermiculites are also common. In the tetrahedral sheet of most vermiculite, considerable substitution of aluminum for silicon has taken place. This accounts for most of the very high net negative charge associated with these minerals.
Water molecules, along with magnesium and other ions, are strongly adsorbed in the interlayer space of vermiculites. They act primarily as bridges holding the units together rather than as wedges driving them apart. The degree of swelling is, therefore considerable less for vermiculites than for smectites. For this reason, vermiculites are considered limited-expansion clay minerals, expanding more than kaolinite but much less than the smectites.

The cation exchange capacity of vermiculites usually exceeds that of all other silicate clays, including montmorillonite and other smectites, because of very high negative charge in the tetrahedral sheet. Vermiculite crystals are larger than those of the smectites but much smaller than those of kaolinite.

Non-expanding minerals: Micas are the type minerals in this group. (e.g.) Muscovite and biotite, weathered minerals similar in structure to these micas are found in the clay fraction of soils. They are called fine-grained micas. Like sanctities, fine-grained micas have a 2:1-type crystal. However, the particles are much larger than those of the smectites. Also, the major source of charge is in-the tetrahedral sheet where aluminum atoms occupy about 20% of the silicon sites. These results in a high net negative charge in the tetrahedral sheet, even higher than that found in vermiculites, to satisfy this charge, potassium ions are strongly attracted in the interlayer space and are just the right size to fit into certain spaces in the adjoining tetrahedral sheets. The potassium thereby acts as a binding agent, preventing expansion of the crystal. Hence, fine-grained micas are quite non expansive.

The properties such as hydration, cation adsorption, swelling, shrinkage, and plasticity are much less intense in fine-grained micas than in smectites. The fine grained micas exceed kaolinite with respect to these characteristics, but this may be due in part to the presence of interstratified layers of smectite or vermiculite. In size, too, fine-grained mica crystals are intermediate between the smectities and kaolihites.
Their specific surface area varies from 70 to 100 m2/g, about one eighth that for the smectites.

C. 2:1:1 Type Minerals: This silicate group is represented by chlorites, which are common in a variety of soils. Chlorites are basically iron magnesium silicates with some aluminum present. In a typical chlorite clay crystal, 2:1 layers, such as in vermiculites, alternate with a magnesium-dominated trioctahedral sheet, giving a 2:1:1 ratio. Magnesium also dominates the trioctahedral sheet in the 2:1 layer of chlorites. Thus, the crystal unit contains two silica tetrahedral sheets and two magnesium-dominated trioctahedral sheets giving rise to the term 2:1:1 or 2:2-type structure.
The negative charge of chlorites is about the same as that of fine-grained micas considerably less than that of the smectites or vermiculites. Like fine micas, chlorites may be interstratified with vermiculites or smectites in a single crystal. Particle size and surface area for chlorites are also about the same as for fine grained micas. There is no water adsorption between the chlorite crystal units, which accounts for the non expanding nature of this mineral.

Mixed and interstratified layers: Specific groups of clay minerals do not occur independently of one another. In a given soil, it is common to find several clay minerals in an intimate mixture. Furthermore, some mineral colloids have properties and composition intermediate between those of any two of the well defined minerals described. Such minerals are termed mixed layer or interstratified because the individual layers within a given crystal may be of more than one type. Terms such as "chlorite-vermiculite" and "fine-grained mica- smectite" are used to describe mixed-layer minerals. In some soils, they are more common than single-structured minerals such as montmorillonite.

2. Iron and aluminum oxide clays (sesquioxide clays):
Under conditions of extensive leaching by rainfall and long time intensive weathering of minerals in humid warm climates, most of the silica and much of the alumina in primary minerals are dissolved and slowly leached away. The remnant materials, which have lower solubility, are sesquioxides. Sesquioxides (metal oxides) are mixtures of aluminum hydroxide, Al (OH)3, and iron oxide, Fe2O3, or iron hydroxide, Fe (OH)3.
The Latin word sesqui means one and one- half times, meaning one and one-half times more oxygen than Al and Fe. These clays can grade from amorphous to crystalline.

Examples of iron and aluminum oxides common in soils are gibbsite (Al2O3.3H2O) and geothite (Fe2O3.H2O).

Less is known about these clays than about the layer silicates. These clays do not swell, not sticky and have high phosphorus adsorption capacity

3. Allophane and other Amorphous Minerals: These silicate clays are mixtures of silica and alumina. They are amorphous in nature. Even mixture of other weathered oxides (iron oxide) may be a part of the mixture. Typically, these clays occur where large amount of weathered products existed. These clays are common in soils forming from volcanic ash (e.g., Allophane). These clays have high anion exchange capacity or even high cation exchange capacity. Almost all of their charge is from accessible hydroxyl ions (OH-), which can attract a positive ion or lose the H+ attached. These clays have a variable charge that depends on H+ in solution (the soil acidity).

4. Humus (Organic Colloid): Humus is amorphous, dark brown to black, nearly insoluble in water, but mostly soluble in dilute alkali (NaOH or KOH) solutions. It is a temporary intermediate product left after considerable decomposition of plant and animal remains. They are temporary intermediate because the organic substances remain continue to decompose slowly.

The humus is often referred to as an organic colloid and consists of various chains and loops of linked carbon atoms. The humus colloids are not crystalline. They are composed basically of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen rather than of silicon, aluminum, iron, oxygen, and hydroxyl groups.

The organic colloidal particles vary in size, but they may be at least as small as the silicate clay particles. The negative charges of humus are associated with partially dissociated enolic (-OH), carboxyl (-COOH), and phenolic groups; these groups in turn are associated with central units of varying size and complexity.

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