1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fuller's Earth

FULLER’S EARTH (Ger. Walkererde, Fr. terre à foulon, argile smectique)—so named from its use by fullers as an absorbent of the grease and oil of cloth,—a clay-like substance, which from its variability is somewhat difficult to define. In colour it is most often greenish, olive-green or greenish-grey; on weathering it changes to a brown tint or it may bleach. As a rule it falls to pieces when placed in water and is not markedly plastic; when dry it adheres strongly to the tongue; since, however, these properties are possessed by many clays that do not exhibit detergent qualities, the only test of value lies in the capacity to absorb grease or clarify oil. Fuller’s earth has a specific gravity of 1.7–2.4, and a shining streak; it is usually unctuous to the touch. Microscopically, it consists of minute irregular-shaped particles of a mineral that appears to be the result of a chloritic or talcose alteration of a felspar. The small size of most of the grains, less than .07 mm., makes their determination almost impossible. Chemical analysis shows that the peculiar properties of this earth are due to its physical rather than its chemical nature.

The following analyses of the weathered and unweathered condition of the earth from Nutfield, Surrey, represent the composition of one of the best known varieties:—

Blue Earth (dried at 100° C.).

Insoluble residue  69.96 Insoluble residue—  
Fe2O3 2.48 SiO2 62.81
Al2O3 3.46 Al2O3 3.46
CaO 5.87 Fe2O3 1.30
MgO 1.41 CaO 1.53
P2O5 0.27 MgO 0.86
SO3 0.05 ———
NaCl 0.05   69.96
K2O 0.74 ———
H2O (combined) 15.57

Yellow Earth (dried at 100° C.).

Insoluble residue  76.13 Insoluble residue—  
Fe2O3 2.41 SiO2 59.37
Al2O3 1.77 Al2O3 10.05
CaO 4.31 Fe2O3 3.86
MgO 1.05 CaO 1.86
P2O5 0.14 MgO 1.04
SO3 0.07 ———
NaCl 0.14 76.18
K2O 0.84 ———
H2O (combined) 13.19

(Analysis by P. G. Sanford, Geol. Mag., 1889, 6, pp. 456, 526.)

Of other published analyses, not a few show a lower silica content (44%, 50%), along with a higher proportion of alumina (11%, 23%).

Fuller’s earth may occur on any geological horizon; at Nutfield in Surrey, England, it is in the Cretaceous formations; at Midford near Bath it is of Jurassic age; at Bala, North Wales, it occurs in Ordovician strata; in Saxony it appears to be the decomposition product of a diabasic rock. In America it is found in California in rocks ranging from Cretaceous to Pleistocene age; in S. Dakota, Custer county and elsewhere a yellow, gritty earth of Jurassic age is worked; in Florida and Georgia occurs a brittle, whitish earth of Oligocene age. Other deposits are worked in Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts and South Carolina.

Fuller’s earth is either mined or dug in the open according to local circumstances. It is then dried in the sun or by artificial heat and transported in small lumps in sacks. In other cases it is ground to a fine powder after being dried; or it is first roughly ground and made into a slurry with water, which is allowed to carry off the finer from the coarser particles and deposit them in a creamy state in suitable tanks. After consolidation this fine material is dried artificially on drying floors, broken into lumps, and packed for transport. The use of fuller’s earth for cleansing wool and cloth has greatly decreased, but the demand for the material is as great or greater than it ever was. It is now used very largely in the filtration of mineral oils, and also for decolourizing certain vegetable oils. It is employed in the formation of certain soaps and cleansing preparations.

The term “Fuller’s Earth” has a special significance in geology, for it was applied by W. Smith in 1799 to certain clays in the neighbourhood of Bath, and the use of the expression is still retained by English geologists, either in this form or in the generalized “Fullonian.” The Fullonian lies at the base of the Great Oolite or Bathonian series, but its palaeontological characters place it between that series and the underlying Inferior Oolite. The zonal fossils are Perisphinctes arbustigerus and Macrocephalus subcontractus with Ostrea acuminata, Rhynchonella concinna and Goniomya angulifera. The formation is in part the equivalent of the “Vesulien” of J. Marcou (Vesoul in Haute-Saône). In Dorsetshire and Somersetshire, where it is best developed, it is represented by an Upper Fuller’s Earth Clay, the Fuller’s Earth Rock (an impersistent earthy limestone, usually fossiliferous), and the Lower Fuller’s Earth Clay. Commercial fuller’s earth has been obtained only from the Upper Clay. In eastern Gloucestershire and northern Oxfordshire the Fuller’s Earth passes downwards without break into the Inferior Oolite; northward it dies out about Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire and passes laterally into the Stonesfield Slates series; in the midland counties it may perhaps be represented by the “Upper Estuarine Series.” In parts of Dorsetshire the clays have been used for brickmaking and the limestone (rock) for local buildings.

See H. B. Woodward, “Jurassic Rocks of Great Britain,” vol. iv. (1894), Mem. Geol. Survey (London).  (J. A. H.)