Basalts and related magmatic rocks such as diabase are frequently used as raw materials in the building and construction industry as dimension stones or as aggregates, where they may form the sub-bases of roads or railway embankments. A major characteristic controlling the quality of the raw materials is the rock strength, which can be affected by the presence of swellable clay minerals (smectites). Increasing smectite content is generally considered to increasingly affect rock integrity. Industrial practice, in which the smectite content is monitored via cation exchange capacity (CEC) methods, on the other hand, showed that both mechanically stable smectite-rich and unstable smectite-poor materials exist. We therefore studied the CEC–strength relation based on twelve samples from a German diabase quarry.

As could be expected, the sample with the highest CEC was the least stable. However, the comparison of the rock strength with the CEC of the other samples was less clear. Comparing the CEC of powders and of the 1–2 mm fraction of the same sample provided additional information. In the case of samples which are relatively stable (in spite of high CEC values), the CEC values of the powders were significantly higher than those of the 1–2 mm fraction. Samples with less rock strength, on the other hand, showed equal CEC values of the powder and the 1–2 mm fraction. This difference may be explained by different accessibilities of the smectites for CEC exchange solutions during typical experiments.

In conclusion, the application of the CEC method for quality control considering both powdered and 1–2 mm samples allows a more precise estimation of the rock strength to be made, particularly for the comparison of different materials. Although measurement of two CEC values (after both sieving and grinding) would complicate quality control, the present study indicates that valuable additional information, i.e. semi-quantitative information on the accessibility of smectites, is gained.

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