For context, I am a potter and am interested in collecting and processing all materials that I use by myself. One of the processes which I use is calcination of certain minerals like feldspar, so that I can turn them into fine powder.

For reference, most feldspars are mixtures of the three chemicals: $\ce{KAlSi3O8,\ NaAlSi3O8,}$ and $\ce{CaAl2Si2O8}$. I usually collect pieces of granite which have a high feldspar content. I then put the granite into my electric (oxidation) kiln and fire it above $\pu{1000 ^\circ C}$. After it has been calcined, the granite falls apart very easily, with the exception of the pieces of quartz which remain quite hard. I am then able to crush the feldspar up into a fine powder.

I gather that the heat does something to the feldspar which makes it crumble easily but chemically speaking I don't know what this involves. Does the chemical formula of the feldspar change? Does it just break down in some way?

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    $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity, what happens to the mica in the granite? Vermiculite (used in gardening and for packing) is mica that has been so strongly heated that it expands (“puffs up”). $\endgroup$ – Ed V May 11 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @EdV according to wikipedia, mica remains stable up to 900C, but since I calcine the granite above 1000C I guess the mica decomposes in some way. I'm not a chemist, so I don't know what this entails, but I guess it's something similar to what happens to the feldspar. $\endgroup$ – clathratus May 11 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ Most of the mica you'll find is biotite (for the heavy end-member silicates) or muscovite (for the lighter-end silicates). At high-T you are dehydrating the sheet silicates, and reacting the end-member feldspars with water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide at the same time. Essentially you are speeding-up the weathering process (which is well-quantified) of these minerals, which (mostly) become "clays" of various types. $\endgroup$ – Todd Minehardt May 11 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ @toddminehardt that smells like an answer to me. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Lanzi May 11 at 23:55

You're replicating the natural weathering process of granite.

Granite is a rock comprising the minerals feldspar, quartz, and mica.

There is a continuous solid-solution ternary diagram here that illustrates the various feldspars as a function of calcium, potassium, and sodium content: the end members are K-spar (potassium variety), albite (sodium variety), and anorthite (calcium variety).

The weathering process is complex and involves so-called incongruent dissolution, where one component in the solid state reacts to form one or more nother solid state components. This is why you see granitic feldspar weathering faster than the quartz or mica components out in nature.

You are reacting various minerals (the exact composition of your feldspars and micas would be determined by XRD or a similar method) with oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water from the atmosphere as well as any waters of hydration that may be in your micas, which are sheet silicates from a general class of silicates known as phyllosilicates.

Back to your query about crumbling: you're dehydrating the micas (muscovite on the light-colored end, biotite on the dark-colored end) if they are hydrated at all, but mostly you're making various clays from the feldspars via the incongruent dissolution pathway. Those new minerals you're making are the crumbly ones, mostly clays and maybe some brittle mica scraps. But it's mostly clay.

Generally speaking, carbon dioxide and water form an aqueous solution of carbonic acid species which reacts in the presence of oxygen and a feldspar to form a clay and aqueous calcium and carbonate ions. There are many, many complex reactions.

Here is an excellent write-up about anorthite hydrolysis, specifically regarding the region around Egersund, Norway. In it, the author does some modeling using PHREEQC and gives specific examples of some of the weathering reactions. Here is one of the reactions that takes a mixed albanitic-anorthitic feldspar to kaolinite:

$$\ce{2NaCaAl3Si5O16 + 8CO2 + 9H2O = 2Ca^2+ + 2Na^+ + 6HCO3- + 4SiO2 + 3~Al2Si2O5(OH)4 + 2CO2}$$

High temperature speeds things up, and also will dictate what products you get. Same for water and carbon dioxide, of course.

In summary: you are making mostly crumbly clay from granite by speeding-up the chemical weathering process of (mostly) the feldspar component(s). The particular composition of the clay varies with the entire system composition.

This is a very complex sub-field of study in aqueous geochemistry. An excellent reference (which I used in my grad school days and beyond) is Stumm and Morgan.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the great answer, this is just what I needed. You'll probably be able to answer this question as well :) $\endgroup$ – clathratus May 12 at 22:50

I'm not an expert but based on Googling around, I suspect what happens is primarily:

  1. Driving off any bound water.

  2. Driving some of the silicate out of the material $(\ce{KAlSi3O8 -> KAlSi2O6 + SiO2}).$

My bet is the second effect is the more important. You could try firing it at 500 °C and see if there is any appreciable impact. Think all the bound water would leave then. The second reaction requires temps above 950 °C. Maybe that is the major driver of what you are seeing.

Also, sounds like it's not just feldspar, other junk in there. So a little hard to tell… might by other materials being affected.

If you really wanted to be a chemist about it you could take a chemically pure sample of feldspar (maybe by preparing it, not extracting from nature), fire it at 1000 °C and then look at the morphology (hardness, grain structure). And probably do X-ray powder diffraction or SEM-EDAX to look at what little buggers you made.


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