U.S. bentonite eyes East Asia for kitty litter market

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Although the bentonite mined in Wyoming, a remote western state of the United States, may be the finest in the world, the industry only survived the recent oil production slowdown thanks to cat litter in the country and East Asia.

Oil drilling and kitty litter seem to have little in common, but most of America's 100 million cats use bentonite every day and more cats living thousands of kilometers away could be future customers.

Bentonite is a clumping compound that coagulates cat poop, saves waste, and has captured 75 percent of the 3-billion-U.S. dollars kitty litter market in just the past decade, according to industry sales figures.

Some call bentonite the mineral of 1,000 uses. It is also used to cool drill bits, clump and pull cuttings from bore holes, and seal intrusions into the earth from oil and gas well drilling.

"Currently, bentonite used for kitty litter accounts for about 70 percent of our sales," said Jeremy Hunt, lead export engineer for Wyo-Denver, Wyoming's top bentonite producer.

"But when oil and gas exploration picks up, they will be our biggest buyer," Hunt said.

Because of a decline in oil exploration since 2012, the 300-million-U.S. dollars Wyoming bentonite business dipped 13 percent in 2013 and another 10 percent last year.

"Kitty litter sales in Asia saved the bentonite business," Wyoming Mining Association Director Travis Deti told Xinhua Tuesday, admitting that bentonite sellers were looking more and more to Asian buyers.

"That's because America has the best bentonite in the world," said James P. Ryder, a retired oil and gas engineer living in Denver, "If Asian buyers were smart, they'd gobble it up."

Ryder, 61, once the vice-president of European sales for Concord Energy LLC, graduated with an advanced degree in petroleum engineering from New Mexico State University.

"Bentonite's potential has yet to be realized," said Ryder.

After the United States (4.6 million tons), China (3.2 million) is the world's second largest producer of bentonite, followed by Greece (1.1 million), according to 2013 British Geological Survey data.

"Volcanic ash," explained Ryder, identifying the key natural ingredient of sodium bentonite. "It's rich in aluminum phyllosilicate clay, and that makes this form of bentonite truly unique."

It can expand up to 16 times its original size," Ryder said, "and its uses are still unmeasured."

The most high-grade, natural sodium bentonite on Earth is extracted from a 200-mile-long area between the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, according to Ryder.

Volcanic activity during the Cambrian Period, some 500 million years ago, formed the mineral-rich Bighorn Basin, that has also produced 1.4 billion barrels of oil in the past century, studies show.

Wyoming miners find this light-gray mud 20 feet below the ground in long, wide veins, but complain that production has been hampered by federal regulations, Deti said.

"We are looking forward to working with the Trump administration so we can increase production," Deti told Xinhua.

Experts agree that this wonder element's applications have yet to be realized. Currently, bentonite is also used in women's cosmetics, landfill liners, laxative ingestion, a wine clarifier, and even as a deodorant.

Ning Lu, a professor teaching at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, Colorado, is doing research on bentonite.

Lu told Xinhua that uses of bentonite would "continue to be explored," and that she expected "short-term" increases in sales to Asian nations such as South Korea, Japan and China.

A native of Fuzhou in Fujian Province, Lu said that Wyoming bentonite could be easily substituted by other bentonite with similar properties in the long term.

"Bentonite is one of the most abundant natural materials," Lu said. "Most marine sediments are rich in bentonite."

Ryder disagreed, and said that additives to bentonite could not match its natural form.

"Properties such as viscosity and fluid loss of suspensions of sodium-enriched bentonite may not be fully equivalent to those of natural sodium bentonite," he said.

Ryder said that residual calcium carbonates, formed if exchanged cations are insufficiently removed, "may result in inferior performance of the bentonite in geosynthetic clay liners," another of the element's many uses. Endi

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