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Sodium Hydroxide (LYE)

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Product Description

Sodium Hydroxide (Lye)

Sodium hydroxide is a highly soluble chemical which is widely known as lye and also referred to as caustic soda or lye. Its molecular formula is NaOH. Sodium hydroxide is white and is a solid, typically in the form of pellets, flakes, and granules. It can also be manufactured into a 50% saturated solution. Sodium hydroxide yields a robust alkaline solution when dissolved in water.



In 1807, Sodium hydroxide was discovered in England by Sir Humphry Davy. Davy was an English chemist who discovered several vital elements including barium, calcium, boron, magnesium, and strontium. He discovered sodium hydroxide through electrolysis. Through the process of electrolysis materials are separated; a direct electric current passes through a dissolved or molten ionic substance which produces chemical reactions and separates its components. Davy used a basic electrolysis device to achieve this separation. He connected a battery to metallic electrodes that he dipped into the mineral mixture that he wanted to decompose. He melted the mixture into an alloy and then passed the electric current through the mixture. Using electrolysis, he isolated and discovered sodium hydroxide.



Since its discovery, sodium hydroxide remains a high used chemical. The world production in 2004 was estimated at 60 million dry metric tons with the demand being about 51 million tons. 14 million tons are produced in North America and Asia, while Europe produces about 10 million tons.


Prior to the late 19th century, sodium hydroxide was produced through a process called causticizing which is a metathesis reaction which is created by treating sodium carbonate with calcium hydroxide. After the late 19th century, the Solvay process was developed by Ernest Solvay and it became the leading process for yielding sodium hydroxide. At a very simple level, it is the process of mixing brine, soda ash, limestone and calcium chloride. Today, the chloralkali process is the most prevalent manner of producing sodium hydroxide. There are three types of chloralkali processes: the membrane cell process, the mercury cell process and the diaphragm cell process. The membrane cell process is the most frequently used process. During this process, saturated brine enters the membrane cell and the chloride is oxidized in the anode. The sodium (Na+) flows through the ion-selective membrane, while the membrane prevents hydroxide and chloride from flowing through. The water is decomposed into hydroxide and hydrogen gas at the cathode of the membrane cell. The oxidized chloride and sodium are electrolyzed to yield sodium hydroxide. During the mercury cell process, seawater is electrolyzed in a mercury cell which produces chlorine and sodium hydroxide simultaneously. The diaphragm process has two areas which are separated by a penetrable diaphragm. Brine flows from the anode area to the cathode area. Chlorine is produced at the anode as chloride ions are oxidized, while water is decomposed at the cathode yielding caustic soda (sodium hydroxide).         



Sodium hydroxide is a very widely used compound in our day to day lives in many household items; it is also widely used industrially. It is used in many household cleaning products and in manufacturing products like detergents, cleaners and soaps. Some hair products used sodium hydroxide as well. It is also used in the manufacturing of textiles, paper and pulp. It is even used in manufacturing drinking water and other food processes.


As a cleaning agent, sodium hydroxide is frequently used to clean equipment and tanks. It is dissolved in water and then heated which becomes a very strong solution able to dissipate grease, fat, oil and protein deposits. Many draining cleaning solutions use this solution with the addition of surfactants that stabilize the dissolved deposits so they don’t redispose and are just flushed out of the piping. Sodium hydroxide solution is also used as a soak to degrease stainless steel and glass baking products. It is a common ingredient in stove and oven cleaners.


Parts washer detergents also use sodium hydroxide; these detergents are the strongest parts washer cleaners available. Parts washers are used to remove debris from manufactured products after they are created and before they are packaged and distributed. This sodium hydroxide solution became very popular in the early 1990s as a more environmentally conscious parts washer replacing trichloroethane based detergents.    


Sodium hydroxide is used in the process of saponification which yields soaps. During this process, sodium hydroxide is the agent that mixes with all of the other oils to transform them. By the end of the process, all of the sodium hydroxide has been dissolved into other substances.


Many shampoos, conditioners and chemical hair treatments use sodium hydroxide. In shampoos, it is used to balance the pH and neutralize the product. In some conditioners and relaxers, a higher percentage of sodium hydroxide is used making a more acidic formula; this formula helps change the physical structure of hair, thus relaxing its curls. If the concentration is too high, it can damage hair, but professional products are low to neutral in the acidity level.


When wood is pulped to make paper or fibers, sodium hydroxide is frequently used. It is a part of the solution during the kraft process which separates lignin from cellulose fibers. It is also used in the process of bleaching the brown pulp as an oxygenizing agent acting to change the pH.


Sodium hydroxide is widely used in the processing of foods as well. It is noted by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) for use in food processing. It is used to wash and chemically peel fruits and vegetables. It is also used in the process of manufacturing chocolate and cocoa. It helps to balance the pH level as sodas are made too.  



Raw sodium hydroxide can cause serious burns even with just the smallest amount and exposure. It is likely to cause permanent damage to your vision if it comes in contact with eyes. It is imperative that proper precautions are taken when handling sodium hydroxide solids or solutions; specialty goggles and gloves must be worn.   If ingested, the sodium hydroxide can lead to fatality; a mask protecting your mouth is advised when working with sodium hydroxide.  


Sodium hydroxide is highly reactive with air because it is highly water soluble. It must be stored in a safe location inside an air tight container. It is especially important to keep it out of the reach of children as children are even more susceptible to the danger of sodium hydroxide.


















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