The Zeolites are a popular group of minerals for collectors and an important group of minerals for industrial and other purposes. They combine rarity, beauty, complexity and unique crystal habits. Typically forming in the cavities (or vesicles) of volcanic rocks, zeolites are the result of very low grade metamorphism. Some form from just subtle amounts of heat and pressure and can just barely be called metamorphic while others are found in obviously metamorphic regimes. Zeolite crystals have been grown on board the space shuttle and are undergoing extensive research into their formation and unique properties.
Zeolites have many useful purposes. They can perform ion exchange, filtering, odor removal, chemical sieve and gas absorption tasks. The most well known use for zeolites is in water softeners. Calcium in water can cause it to be "hard" and capable of forming scale and other problems. Zeolites charged with the much less damaging sodium ions can allow the hard water to pass through its structure and exchange the calcium for the sodium ions. This process is reversable. In a similar way zeolites can absorb ions and molecules and thus act as a filter for odor control, toxin removal and as a chemical sieve.
Zeolites can have the water in their structures driven off by heat with the basic structure left intact. Then other solutions can be pushed through the structure. The zeolites can then act as a delivery system for the new fluid. This process has applications in medicine, livestock feeds and other types of research. Zeolites added to livestock feed have been shown to absorb toxins that are damaging and even fatal to the growth of the animals, while the basic structure of the zeolite is biologically neutral. Aquarium hobbyists are seeing more zeolite products in pet stores as zeolites make excellent removers of ammonia and other toxins. Most municipal water supplies are processed through zeolites before public consumption. These uses of zeolites are extremely important for industry, although synthetic zeolites are now doing the bulk of the work.