Soda ash is the common name for sodium carbonate, a chemical compound frequently used in manufacturing, industry, and even around the house. Glass production is one of the primary uses for sodium carbonate. Detergents and cleaning agents may also make use of it, and it can be used in cooking or as a food additive, as well.
Use in the Home
Sodium carbonate is a natural water softener, which makes it a common additive to detergents. Products used for these purposes are often sold as washing ash or washing soda. Soda ash prevents hard water from bonding with the detergent, allowing it to be distributed more evenly during the washing cycle.
In addition, the compound has demonstrated ability to help remove buildup. It can help remove alcohol and grease stains from clothing, as well as calcifications in everything from coffee pots and espresso makers to boilers and hot water heaters. Running a solution of sodium carbonate and water through these systems from time to time will help prevent the minerals in water from building up in them and keep them functioning at their best.
Soda ash can also be used to increase the alkalinity in swimming pools, helping to ensure the proper pH balance of the water. It can be used in dying to help the dye bond to the fabric effectively. Photographers also use a sodium carbonate solution as part of the photo development process.
Uses in Food and Cooking
Some recipes may also require soda ash, usually as a reactive agent. Many German pretzel recipes, for instance, call for boiling lumps of dough in a soda ash mixture before baking in order to create a crispy outer shell or crust. Using the ash in this way is usually a substitute for lye.
A number of prepared foods and beverages also contain sodium carbonate. It is commonly added to corn syrup, for instance, which is a popular sweetening agent. Soda ash can be used as an anti-caking agent, to help baked goods to rise, and to help control the acidity of some foods. The compound may also be included in pharmaceuticals, particularly over-the-counter pain killers.
Use in Glass
One of the most common products that can be made with soda ash is glass; more than 50% of all sodium carbonate produced around the world is used for this purpose. When mixed in proportion with sand and calcium carbonate, heated to the right temperature, and then cooled quickly, the end result is soda-lime silica glass with excellent durability and clarity. This sort of glass is in heavy demand in the automotive and manufacturing industries, and can be found in everything from windshields, to mirrors, to beer bottles.
Industrial and Manufacturing Uses
Soda ash is a very common industrial chemical as well. In addition to food and cosmetic products, it's also used in fertilizers. When it comes to exhaust towers and chemical stacks, this ash can play a very important role in air purification because when sodium carbonate reacts with sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid, for example, less harmful compounds are produced.
Sodium carbonate is known by the chemical formula Na2CO3, in reference to the elements that make up its base composition: Na, which is sodium; C, which is carbon; and O, which is oxygen. The Na2CO3 combination does not usually occur in isolation in nature, however, so it must be intentionally refined by scientists.
There are two main ways of refining sodium carbonate. Trona, a mineral that occurs in natural deposits in evaporated lake beds throughout the world, is the most common source. Some salt water also contains sodium carbonate compounds. To extract the ash, scientists usually subject the trona ore or salt water to different crushing, heating, spinning, and other techniques.
The compound can also be created in a lab using the Solvay process rather than isolated from existing compounds. Synthetic sodium carbonate usually has the same properties as that found in nature, but can be more expensive to produce. The manufacturing process also creates waste products, including calcium chloride, which can potentially cause pollution.
Sodium carbonate is generally regarded as a safe substance. It can be handled without extraordinary precautions, and the United States Food and Drug Administration has deemed it safe for human consumption in all its forms. Those working to extract the compound from raw ore or in labs should wear masks, however, as prolonged exposure to any powder particulates can be harmful.