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What Is the Difference between Soda Ash and Baking Soda?

By Brenda Scott
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Baking soda and soda ash are similar, yet have a different chemical makeup, reactions and uses. Baking soda, known as sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) is composed of one atom of sodium, one atom of hydrogen, one atom of carbon and three atoms of oxygen. Soda ash, known as sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) is made from two atoms of sodium, one atom of carbon and three atoms of oxygen. In both compounds, the sodium will separate from the carbon when mixed with water, but their responses are different. When baking soda breaks down, it vacillates between an acid and base state, while soda ash becomes a base, which can be used to neutralize acids.

Baking soda is a common ingredient in cooking. When mixed with water and an acid, it gives off carbon dioxide gas, which causes the baked goods to rise. This effervescent byproduct makes baking soda a helpful ingredient in carbonated drinks as well. Sodium bicarbonate has numerous additional uses; it is a deodorizer, an ingredient in toothpaste, a cleaning agent, provides relief for canker sores, and is used to draw the venom from insect and jellyfish stings. It can also extinguish small fires, repel ants and roaches, and keep rabbits from eating garden plants.

pH (potential of hydrogen) measurements reveal whether a substance is acidic or alkaline, or an acid or base. pH levels are measured on a scale from zero to 14; the lower the number, the more acidic the substance. Swimming pools should have a pH balance in the midrange, which will allow the chlorine to work effectively without burning the skin or eyes of the swimmers. Soda ash is more alkaline than baking soda, and is the preferred additive to raise the pH levels in swimming pools.

One of the first uses of sodium carbonate was glassmaking, which dates back thousands of years to glass production in Egypt. Centuries later, glass production is still the primary consumer of soda ash. It is also an important ingredient in soaps, detergents, dyes and manufacturing processes. Paper manufacturing uses sodium carbonate to soften the wood particles in pulp.

Sodium carbonate was originally derived from the ashes of burnt seaweed, though sodium carbonate can be gleaned from the ashes of many plants, as well as from table salt. In Green River, Wyoming, a prehistoric lakebed contains around 200 trillion tons of a mineral deposit called trona, which is basically sodium sesquicarbonate. The trona deposit is located between layers of sandstone and shale, and is mined and processed into sodium carbonate. Other natural deposits of sodium carbonate can be found around the world, including Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Baking soda, on the other hand, is not mined, but is a byproduct of soda ash production.

Soda ash can also be produced synthetically using the Solvay process, created by a Swiss chemist in the nineteenth century. Some countries, such as Australia and India, produce sodium carbonate from limestone, salt and coke. Currently, China is the leading producer of soda ash, though the United States follows at a close second, and competition between the two countries is stiff. Following the US, leading producers are Russia, Germany, India, Poland, Italy, France, and the UK.

What Is Soda Ash?

Soda ash or sodium carbonate is a white, odorless, and water-soluble alkali chemical. Ancient civilizations burned plants growing in sodium-rich soil to produce this substance. Today, soda ash is one of the world's most widely used inorganic compounds, acquired in two ways:

  1. Mining and heating the mineral trona to remove gases before saturating it with water to extract impurities. Following a water evaporation process, what remains goes into a centrifuge machine that extracts soda ash crystals that go through another drying process.
  2. Solvay processing involves saturating brine to remove impurities before subjecting it to ammonia gases. Next, heating limestone produces carbon dioxide that passes through the brine to make ammonium bicarbonate and sodium chloride. A final heating extracts remaining water and carbon dioxide to leave soda ash crystals.

The Solvay process, named for the Belgian scientist, Ernest Solvay, accounts for most soda ash today and supersedes prior synthetic production methods, which had adverse environmental effects.

What Is Soda Ash Used For In Daily Life?

Soda ash varies in size and shape, and its particles are labeled light, medium, or dense. Its various consistencies are suitable for numerous applications, making it an essential ingredient in many products we use daily.

Light Soda Ash

Light soda ash is an acidity regulator and buffering agent that maintains a food item's pH stability. An unstable pH can lead to the growth of hazardous microorganisms. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration approves soda ash for use in flours and mixes as a raising agent and in other food products to prevent caking.

Light soda ash is also increasingly common as an active pharmaceutical ingredient. Its use in the manufacture of medical drugs accelerates the effectiveness and distribution of the primary chemical substance.

Personal care products also include soda ash, which improves their efficacy. For example, soda ash in toothpaste helps create a bubbling effect to clean tight spaces in the mouth while balancing the mouth's pH levels. Likewise, hair dyes contain soda ash to break down hair oils and allow color molecules to penetrate the hair follicle.

Light soda ash is also an essential ingredient added to swimming pools for a healthy pH level that makes swimming comfortable and protects metal pool fixtures from corrosion.

Medium Soda Ash

Adding soda ash to detergent and cleaning products facilitates the distribution of the cleansing agents. In addition, soda ash prevents calcium and magnesium in hard water from inhibiting the products' foaming and stain lifting actions. Soda ash is especially beneficial for removing persistent stains due to oil and other substances.

Soda ash also distributes surfactants which are compounds that lower the surface tension of water. Lower surface tension prevents water molecules from sticking to each other and allows them to bond with detergent instead. This bond results in the lifting away of dirt and stains.

Dense Soda Ash

Dense soda ash has broad industrial applications. For example, glass production represents one of the most important industrial uses for soda ash because it reduces melting temperature, making glass-shaping possible. Glass made with soda ash facilitates the manufacture of many items, including:

  • Television screens
  • Automobile windows
  • Mirrors
  • Housewares
  • Storage containers
  • Eyeglass lenses
  • Lightbulbs

Soda ash is also helpful for paper manufacturing. Boiling plant fibers in caustic soda ash can sufficiently break them down and separate non-cellulose from cellulose components, eventually becoming the final paper product.

Another vital application for soda ash involves neutralizing harmful chemicals from exhaust towers and plants before penetrating the air and contaminating the environment. The environmentally friendly qualities of soda ash are also evident in processing lithium for lithium-ion batteries, which are highly in demand to store energy from renewable energy sources.

Is Soda Ash Toxic?

Soda ash is used in numerous household, industrial, and food products and naturally occurs in minuscule quantities in drinking water. However, due to its acidic properties, some may wonder if exposure to this chemical is toxic. Fortunately, the benefits of soda ash come from its limited and controlled use for harnessing its anti-bacterial, stabilizing, and neutralizing actions. For example, adding between one ppm and 40 ppm of soda ash to drinking water can effectively combat corrosion and eliminate harmful microorganisms.

It typically takes over 100,000 ppm of soda ash exposure to cause harmful effects, including skin, mouth, or throat burning, and severe gastrointestinal discomfort. This occurrence is rare, though pure soda ash can quickly form dust particles that irritate the eyes and respiratory system due to its friability. Therefore, anyone who works with soda ash in high concentrations for industrial purposes should take great care when handling it to contain the dust it can create.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1005616 — On Oct 07, 2021

So when tie-dying fabric with mx dyes, can I use baking soda instead of soda ash?

By anon1003929 — On Oct 09, 2020

Using soda to increase ph, but if you have high alkalinity; what do you do to keep that down? A natural additive to keep down alkalinity?

By anon968398 — On Sep 03, 2014

Soda ash (sodium carbonate or washing soda) is a strong alkali (PH10) which is very harmful if consumed in strong solution. The crystals will cause damage to mouth tissues. It is safe in very small quantities as a food additive.

Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is a weak alkali (PH8). Note that PH10 is 100 times more powerful than PH8.

Baking powder is baking soda + additives equals sodium pyrophosphate.

Baking soda crystals are safe to brush on the teeth on a regular basis and have a very mild abrasive action. They neutralize the acid which causes tooth decay.

Baking soda is rapidly becoming more popular because it does not contain any of the chemical cocktails found in modern toothpastes eg.

perfume, artificial sweeteners, titanium dioxide pigment, surfactants, stabilisers, preservatives, fluoride, etc.

By scott — On Mar 25, 2011

You can purchase edible grade soda ash from a variety of suppliers.

By famnfriends — On Mar 16, 2011

Did you know that baking soda work great on laundry? You can buy washing soda, which is basically soda ash, on-line and in some stores. It is less expensive and easier on your septic tanks than a lot of the detergents on the market.

We have done this and our laundry is clean and bright! We are also saving a lot on buying detergent.

By lovelife — On Mar 14, 2011

So baking soda is safe for human consumption, is soda ash? If not, why not?

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