The transformation process between palygorskite and smectite was studied by examining the morphological and structural relationships between these two minerals in an assemblage from the Meigs Member of the Hawthorne Formation, southern Georgia. Studied samples were related to an alteration horizon with a tan clay unit above and a blue clay unit below. Atomic force microscopy (AFM) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) were used to study the mechanism of transformation.

From AFM data, both clay units contain euhedral palygorskite fibers. Many fibers are found as parallel intergrowths joined along the [010] direction to form ‘raft-like’ bundles. Degraded fibers, which are common in the tan clay, have a distinctly segmented morphology, suggesting a dissolution texture. Many of the altered palygorskite fibers in the tan clay exhibit an oriented overgrowth of another mineral phase, presumably smectite, displaying a platy morphology. This latter mineral forms along the length of the palygorskite crystals with an interface parallel to {010} of the palygorskite. The resulting grain structures have an elongate ‘wing-like’ morphology.

Imaging by TEM of tan clay material shows smectite lattice-fringe lines intergrown with 2:1 layer ribbon modules (polysomes) of the palygorskite. These features indicate an epitaxial overgrowth of smectite on palygorskite and illustrate the structural relationship between platy overgrowths on fibers observed in AFM data. The epitaxial relationship is described as {010} [001] palygorskite || {010} [001] smectite.

Energy dispersive spectroscopy indicates that the smectite is ferrian montmorillonite. Polysomes of palygorskite fibers involved in these textures commonly vary and polysome widths are consistent with double tetrahedral chains (10.4 Å), triple tetrahedral chains (14.8 Å), quadruple tetrahedral chains (21.7 Å) and quintuple tetrahedral chains (24.5 Å).

The transformation of palygorskite to smectite and the resulting intergrowths will cause variations in bulk physical properties of palygorskite-rich clays. The observation of this transformation in natural samples suggests that this transformation mechanism may be responsible for the lower abundance of palygorskite in Mesozoic and older sediments.

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