Gay Head cliffs in Martha's Vineyard consist almost entirely of clay.

Clay is a finely-grained natural rock or soil material that combines one or more clay minerals with possible traces of quartz (SiO2), metal oxides (Al2O3 , MgO etc.) and organic matter. Geologic clay deposits are mostly composed of phyllosilicate minerals containing variable amounts of water trapped in the mineral structure. Clays are plastic due to particle size and geometry as well as water content, and become hard, brittle and non–plastic upon drying or firing.[1][2][3] Depending on the soil's content in which it is found, clay can appear in various colours from white to dull grey or brown to deep orange-red.

Electron microscope photograph of smectite clay – magnification 23,500×

Although many naturally occurring deposits include both silts and clay, clays are distinguished from other fine-grained soils by differences in size and mineralogy. Silts, which are fine-grained soils that do not include clay minerals, tend to have larger particle sizes than clays. There is, however, some overlap in particle size and other physical properties. The distinction between silt and clay varies by discipline. Geologists and soil scientists usually consider the separation to occur at a particle size of 2 µm (clays being finer than silts), sedimentologists often use 4–5 μm, and colloid chemists use 1 μm.[1] Geotechnical engineers distinguish between silts and clays based on the plasticity properties of the soil, as measured by the soils' Atterberg limits. ISO 14688 grades clay particles as being smaller than 2 μm and silt particles as being larger.

Mixtures of sand, silt and less than 40% clay are called loam. Loam makes good soil and is used as a building material.


Deforestation for clay extraction in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The picture is of Morro da Covanca, Jacarepaguá.

Clay minerals typically form over long periods of time as a result of the gradual chemical weathering of rocks, usually silicate-bearing, by low concentrations of carbonic acid and other diluted solvents. These solvents, usually acidic, migrate through the weathering rock after leaching through upper weathered layers. In addition to the weathering process, some clay minerals are formed through hydrothermal activity. There are two types of clay deposits: primary and secondary. Primary clays form as residual deposits in soil and remain at the site of formation. Secondary clays are clays that have been transported from their original location by water erosion and deposited in a new sedimentary deposit.[4] Clay deposits are typically associated with very low energy depositional environments such as large lakes and marine basins.

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