Abstract: Various workers have studied the mechanism of swelling of Na-montmorillonite and have demonstrated that its ability to swell is due to water penetrating between the individual silicate sheets. In the present study intracrystalline swelling was followed by diffraction techniques which enabled the movement of the silicate sheets with respect to one another to be measured as a function of electrolyte concentration, with or without an externally applied load. The observations have been made on oriented flakes of Na-montmorillonite and single crystals of Li-vermiculite.
Qualitatively the minerals behave similarly when swollen in salt solutions. They both show an initial stage of crystalline swelling, after which there is an explosive increase to the gel state, and then the distance apart of the silicate sheets increases linearly with C−½, where C is electrolyte concentration. Quantitatively, however, their swelling is very different, particularly after the “explosion”, where vermiculite generally gives higher spacings than montmorillonite. There are two other important differences in the swelling of montmorillonite and vermiculite. Firstly, while the swelling of vermiculite appears to be reversible both with respect to electrolyte concentration and applied pressure, the swelling of montmorillonite shows a marked hysteresis. Secondly, in montmorillonite, swelling depends very strongly on pH or chemical treatment.
There is little doubt that the development of diffuse “double layers” gives rise to repulsive forces, which cause the silicate sheets to move apart. Van der Waals' forces have been regarded as providing attraction, but it is found that, at the observed interlayer separations, the magnitude of these attractive forces is inadequate to balance repulsion, both in montmorillonite and vermiculite.
The present results demonstrate that in vermiculite swelling proceeds until the interlayer separation causes the repulsion between sheets to drop to a value of ∼ 2.5 × 104 dyn/cm2. This attractive force, which limits swelling, appears to be independent of sheet separation and electrolyte concentration. In montmorillonite swelling is opposed by edge-to-face bonds between sheets, whose number and strength can be controlled by chemical treatment. These bonds act to resist any displacement of the sheets, either swelling or contraction. This mechanism is compatible with the observed swelling behavior of montmorillonite, and explains the differences between the swelling of this mineral and that of vermiculite where, because the sheets are considerably larger, the force arising from edge-to-face bonds is small or absent.