Quartz is the most available mineral on Earth and one of the hardest, so it is “scarcely” surprising that manufacturers saw its great potential for a surface material more than 50 years ago. Subsequently, quartz Benchtops have grown in popularity as proprietors discovered what the earliest quartz innovators knew – when the natural mineral quartz is improved upon by man’s inventiveness, quartz benchtops can contest with other natural stone benchtops in every way.
The process to engineer quartz benchtops by pressing polymer resins into natural, raw quartz crystals was established by the Italian company, Breton S.p.A, in the early 1960s. Today, Breton continues to be a leading supplier of engineered stone-making equipment. “Breton was first established in 1963 by Marcello Toncelli, who apparent the enormous potential in developing a market which was absolutely innovative and at the time practically uncharted: developing new technologies and manufacturing industrial plants for producing compound stone.”
Breton’s innovative process meant that a mineral, essentially impracticable as a benchtop material on its own, could now be reinforced to make a solid surface that was hard, durable, and very low in porosity. Additionally, manufacturing could be controlled to produce a variety of products, from fine to course grained, with varying colour depending upon the tints added during the process and varying sparkle, depending upon materials like glass that may be added as well.
Quartz benchtops quickly became widespread in Italy, and have been featured in European kitchens for decades to follow. It took longer for the trend to catch on in the United States – this may be explained in various ways: trends and fashions that initiate abroad often take time to filter to the U.S., or, more likely, American proprietors were satisfied with our current options at the time (laminate was the foremost surface in the 60s and 70s) and were not inclined to grip a material that looked so similar to widely available natural stone options like granite, marble and limestone. (Quartz benchtops can be manufactured to look outstandingly like all three of these natural stones.)
Whatever the description, when the significant benefits of quartz benchtops became clear to American consumers in the 90s, their popularity grew fast. By 2004, HGTV was reporting U.S. sales had increased by 60 percent over the previous year. The quartz boom had begun – and continues to this day.
The benefits of quartz benchtops have certainly won us over:
- Consistent, uniform appearance.
- Heavy, solid slabs make for great, long-lasting surfaces that can typically be installed in one piece.
- Wide variety of colours – and supreme availability.
- Exceptionally hard and durable.
- Highly resistant to chips, dents, stains and other surface damage.
- Very low porosity which limits bacterial growth.
- Heat resistant.
- No need for re-sealing.
- Low maintenance.
As a manufactured material, not only is quartz widely available, it can be easily manufactured for unique sizing and unique shapes, including circles and curves.
The history of any building material is always charming, particularly when you are considering all your options for your next project. Consider quartz – it’s not the new kid on the block anymore. It’s a proven material full of excellent benefits, with a half century of experience as an innovative and exciting benchtop option!
UPDATE (October 2023)
Engineered stone, traditionally contains a high percentage of silica because it’s made up mostly of quartz. However, there have been concerns about the health impacts of respirable crystalline silica dust, especially for workers who cut, grind, or polish these surfaces, leading to the need for low-silica alternatives.
Manufacturers who aim to produce engineered stone with lower silica content can follow several strategies:
Alternative Fillers: Use alternative non-silica minerals or materials to replace a portion or all of the quartz filler. This can include materials like marble, metal flakes, recycled glass, etc. The goal is to maintain the desired properties (strength, durability, appearance) while reducing silica content.
Resin Content: By increasing the amount of resin in the mixture, the silica content, by definition, will decrease. However, there’s a limit to this approach, as too much resin can compromise the mechanical properties of the final product.
Enhanced Compaction: Techniques such as vibrocompression under vacuum can be employed to increase the density of the engineered stone, thereby allowing for a smaller amount of quartz to be used.
Silica-Coating: In some experimental setups, quartz particles are coated with non-silica materials. This reduces the amount of respirable silica that can become airborne during cutting or polishing, although the overall silica content of the material might remain the same.
Engineered Porosity: Introducing controlled porosity can reduce the overall amount of silica, but this can also affect the material’s mechanical and aesthetic properties.
Alternative Production Methods: Nano-cemented materials or geopolymers might be used to produce engineered stone-like surfaces with much lower silica content.
Safety During Manufacturing: While reducing the silica content in the stone is one approach, ensuring that workers are protected during manufacturing, cutting, and installation is equally crucial. This can include wet-working methods to reduce dust, proper ventilation, and appropriate personal protective equipment.
Manufacturers aiming to introduce low-silica engineered stones need to strike a balance between maintaining the aesthetic and functional qualities of their product, ensuring worker safety, and meeting any regulatory requirements.