While science fiction authors might suggest that fossils are best used to clone dinosaurs, diatomaceous earth shows us that fossils have a great number of uses in day to day living. Diatoms are tiny, single-celled algae found in plankton. Diatomaceous earth is a fine, white, crystalline powder made up of the fossilized shells of diatoms. Lightweight, gritty, and porous, it finds a surprising array of uses.
Most people are likely to associate diatomaceous earth with its use in swimming pool filters. The structure of the fossilized diatoms resemble small sponges with many openings. With so many places for particles to become stuck, it makes excellent filter material. Besides swimming pools, diatomaceous earth can be used to filter drinking water, beer, and syrup. Chemists also use it to filter particles out of liquids.
The gritty nature of diatomaceous earth makes it useful as a polish. It is non-toxic, so it can be used as an ingredient in toothpaste, or to clean metal products, even those used with food. It is a naturally occurring mineral with a very low environmental effect, and it's safe to use around people and animals. Even though it is non-toxic, people should never attempt to treat themselves with diatomaceous earth, either externally or internally. Medical professionals use a special medical grade in cases in which it is used on patients.
The abrasive quality of diatomaceous earth also makes it a safe yet effective insecticide. It scrapes the protective outer shell off of insects. Without this protective layer, the insects quickly dry up and die. The substance can be used to remove external parasites from people and animals, and can be spread on crops to kill insects without dangerous chemicals. Some farmers even add a very small amount to their livestock's feed to control internal parasites.
Diatomaceous earth's high porosity makes it very absorbent. Liquid is quickly absorbed and trapped by all the tiny pores in the diatom's shells. This absorbency makes it a key ingredient in some brands of cat litter. It is also used to clean up spills, especially of dangerous or toxic chemicals. When the chemical is completely absorbed, it is prevented from spreading and can be more easily removed.
Truly an under-appreciated substance, diatomaceous earth performs a wide variety of tasks. It already acts as a safe insecticide, an efficient filter, and a spill cleaner. Who knows what other uses people might find for these humble fossils.