Silica gel Uses

Silica gel is a porous and amorphous form of silica or silicon dioxide. It consists of an irregular and tri-dimensional framework of oxygen and silicon atoms alternating with nanometer-scale pores and voids. The voids might contain some form of a liquid or water, or come filled with vacuum or gas. In the last scenario, the material is formally called silica xerogel. 

The average pore size of a silica xerogel is 2.4 nanometers. It is famous for its utilization as a desiccant and holds a strong affinity for molecules of water. It is translucent and hard, but comparatively softer than massive quartz or silica glass. Plus, it retains its hard form when saturated or submerged in water. 

Commercial Production 

Silica xerogel is commercially available as coarse beads and granules with a diameter of a few millimetres. Some grains of silica gel may contain a minute amount of indicating substance. This substance indicator changes colour when it has absorbed some amount of water. 

You may find silica xerogel pellets in various products in a small paper envelope, usually stating a warning “do not eat.” They are an effective way to prevent dry food packages from humidity that may damage or spoil the enclosed food item. 

Silica gel also comes as “wet” silica gel, prepared using alkali silicate solutions. Its consistency might vary from other soft transparent gels such as agar or gelatin. It can also be found in a hard solid form known as water-logged silica xerogel. 

Silica gel comes in handy for specific laboratory processes such as suppression convection in liquids or preventing the settling of any suspended particles. 

Types of Silica Gel

There are three basic types of silica gel type 1 , 2 & 3

Type 1 desiccant is a clear pellet form with a diameter of 2.5 nanometers approximately. It has moisture-proof and drying properties and mostly used as absorbent, catalyst carrier, separators, etc. 

Type 2 are white translucent pellets with a pore diameter ranging from 4.5 to 7.0 nanometers. Type 2 silica gel are commonly used as a dryer, liquid absorbents, and perfume carriers. Some of the other uses may include cat litter and catalyst carriers. 

Type 3 are the micro-pored crystalline structure. It is a raw material to prepare silica gel-based cat litter. If additionally screened and dried, it becomes a macro-pored form of silica gel, useful as an absorbent, drier, and catalyst carrier. 

Uses of Silica gel

Silica gel is a beneficial substance, for both consumer and commercial purposes. Below are a list of uses.

  • Desiccant

The most common use of silica gel is its use as a desiccant that comes as beads packaged in a paper or permeable bag in various products. 

In many products, the presence of moisture works as a catalyst to the growth of spoilage and mould. Whereas, in some condensation may damage the items such as electronics. Similarly, condensation may also speed up the process of chemical decomposition, such as in vitamin pills. 

Therefore, the inclusion of silica gel packs in these products can help resolve these issues and preserve these products for a longer duration. 

Another industrial use of silica gel is to keep the air dry in industrial level compressed air systems. The air from the industrial compressor flows through a bedded layer of silica gel beads. These beads absorb any moisture present in the air and prevent any damage the compressed air might have caused due to moisture or condensation. 

A similar system applies to dry the compressed air in railway locomotives, where ice and condensation in the brake’s air pipes may lead to failure of brakes. Silica gel is also useful as a preservation tool to control humidity levels in library exhibitions, museums, and storages. 

Other silica applications include inhalation devices, diagnostic test strips, drug test kits, syringes, and sanitation kits at the hospitals.

In order to monitor the performance of these silica gel, users can choose to use a Humidity Indicator Card, to keep track of the level of moisture which the goods have been exposed to.

  • Cat Litter

Lesser-known use of silica gel is its use in cat litters. Silica gel can be used on its own or combined with other traditional materials, including clays, and it is virtually odourless. 

  • Food Additives

Silica gel is also known as hydrated silica or silica aerogel. The Food and Drug Authority of the United States declared it as “Generally Recognized as Safe” or “GRAS.” It means you can add it to any of the food products with any approval required by the authorities. 

In the US, the quantity of silica allowed in any food product is up to 2%. The permission falls under 21 CFR 172.480. Whereas, in the European Union, the maximum quantity of the silica allowed in food products is 5% concentration. 

Some of the listed uses of silica in food products are anti-caking agent, stabilizer, defoaming agent, carrier, absorbent, conditioning agent, filter aid, viscosity control agent, emulsifying agent, chill-proofing agent, and anti-settling agent. 

  • Water Filtration

Due to water adsorption capabilities of silica gel, it’s used with domestic water filters. Silica gel’s surface structure makes it ideal for the adsorption of certain minerals dissolved in water, hence, commonly coined as ion-exchange for marketing the product due to this characteristic. 

  • Humidity Indicator

Silica gel is also widely used as a moisture indicator that gradually changes its colour during its transitioning from dry (anhydrous) state to wet (hydrated) state. The most common types include methyl violet and cobalt (II) chloride. 

Cobalt (II) chloride is deep blue in colour in its dry state and changes to pink when wet. However, it is carcinogenic and toxic, and the EU reclassified it as toxic material in July 2000. 

Methyl violet has the tendency to change its colour from orange to green and orange to colourless, depending on the conditions. Although toxic and carcinogenic, it is still comparatively safe enough for medicinal use in certain products. 

Hazards of Silica gel

Silica gel is stable, non-reactive, non-flammable, and non-toxic with everyday use. However, it will react with strong acids, basis, and oxidizers. Silica gel is irritating for the respiratory tract and digestive tract. The dust from silica gel beads may also irritate eyes and skin; therefore, the user must take precautions.