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Baking Soda or Bicarbonate of Soda

Updated on December 26, 2012

When most people think of baking soda or bicarbonate of soda, as it’s commonly called, they immediately think of fresh baked goods like biscuits, bread or cakes. What many people do not realize is this simple, white powder has many wonderful uses outside of the realm of cooking. These uses include everything from cleaning to medicine and science experiments. For the sake of education, let's now take a few minutes to briefly discuss this common kitchen chemical that most of us have in our own spice cabinet's at home.

What is Baking Soda or Bicarbonate of Soda?

Baking soda is actually a crystalline salt but it is often sold in its powdered form. A derivative of the mineral, natron, the natural form of bicarbonate of soda known as nahcolite can be found in the solution of many hot springs. The chemical composition of baking soda is NaHCO3, thus giving it the scientific name of Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate. It is also sold under the names sodium bicarbonate, bread soda, bicarbonate of soda or cooking soda. Due to its unique properties, it is often used in baking because the thermic reaction caused by heating baking soda releases carbon dioxide, causing baked goods to rise during the cooking process and battered foods to have a crispy texture.

The Historical Uses of Baking Soda or Bicarbonate of Soda

In historical terms, baking soda has been in use since the time of the Ancient Egyptians. These people used naturally occurring sodium hydrogen carbonate for soaps and other cleaning agents. They acquired the chemical from natural deposits of natron. Modern usages of sodium bicarbonate as a cooking compound were not introduced until the year 1846 when John Dwight and Austin Church began the production of commercial baking soda in their New York factory. The baking soda the two bakers produced, which was commonly known as saleratus, was a mixture of soda ash (first produced in 1791 by Nicolas Leblanc) and carbon dioxide. In early usage, this chemical compound was used for food preservation, particularly by commercial fishermen of the 1800s, as was noted by Rudyard Kipling in his book Captains Courageous.


Baking Soda and its Many Uses Today

Aside from traditional usage for food preservation and preparation, baking soda has many other uses. Some of the more common uses of baking soda include, but are certainly not limited to:


Personal Hygiene Products - This chemical compound can be found in a variety of soaps, shampoo, deodorant and oral care products. Some individuals even use a mixture of baking soda with water as a low cost, highly effective tooth paste. Clinical studies have shown that baking soda is very effective for tooth whitening and plaque removal. Due to its alkaline and antiseptic properties, this chemical compound can also help in the reduction of acids in the mouth and the prevention of oral infections.

Laundry - Another common use of baking soda around the home is in the laundry room. Added to the wash water, the chemical compound serves to soften the water (making detergents more effective) and remove odors. As an interesting side point, scientists working on the Manhattan Project in 1940s discovered that a 2% solution of baking soda in water is effective at the removal of depleted uranium dust from cotton fibers, which cannot be said of normal laundering processes.


Household Cleaning Products - Used by itself or as a component of other cleaning products, baking soda is a highly effective tool for cleansing and scrubbing. The chemical compound can be found in many commercial household cleaning products. When used by itself for homemade cleaning products, baking soda sees many uses. A paste of baking soda and water is quite effective for scouring food residue off of non-aluminum cooking utensils, pots and pans. A solution of baking soda and water can be used to remove tarnish from silver as well as removing stains from tea pitchers and coffee pots. Baking soda is also useful for absorbing odors so it can commonly be found in refrigerators or freezers to eliminate the musty smell or food odors that often inhabit these appliances. Sodium bicarbonate can also be used as carpet deodorizing powder to remove pet odors or to eliminate odors in enclosed areas, such as basements and closets.

Athletic Usage - For athletes involved with speed-based sports, baking soda, or bicarbonate of soda, is sometimes used as a dietary supplement in small dosages. While the compound does provide some short term advantages, it is discouraged as a regular practice because it can create significant health problems and increases the athlete dietary sodium significantly.


Medicinal Usage - Baking soda is commonly used in home remedies for the treatment of burns, insect bites and allergic reactions brought on by contact with irritants, such as poison ivy or poison oak. The most common application is making a thick paste of baking soda and water, which is then applied to the skin for its cooling and antiseptic properties. The medical profession incorporates the use of sodium hydrogen carbonate in the treatment of acidic conditions of the body, such as acid indigestion, metabolic acidosis, aspirin overdose and renal stones caused by excess uric acid in the body. Intravenous injections of the chemical in a liquid solution are also used in life-saving measures, such as cases of extreme acidosis and in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), with proper medical supervision.

Farm Usage - Baking soda, or bicarbonate of soda as it is sometimes listed on manufacturer labels, often sees use in the farm setting. This chemical compound can be found in cattle feed to assist in buffering the acids found in the multi-part stomachs of cows. It is also recognized by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its anti-fungal properties. As such, it is listed as a safe, low-toxicity bio-pesticide.

Fire Suppression and Chemical Neutralization - Due to its unique thermic and amphoteric properties, baking soda can often be found in scientific laboratories. These same advantages can be used in the home setting for safety. Due to the thermic reaction which causes heated baking soda to release carbon dioxide, it is often used in dry-chemical fire suppression systems. This is particularly useful knowledge in the case of electrical or grease fires, where the use of water could be disastrous. In addition, the amphoteric (reacting with both acids and bases) properties of this bicarbonate make it useful in neutralizing dangerous chemicals, including corrosive acids, such as those found in many household cleaners. Using the chemical compound to neutralize such products which have come into accidental contact with the skin can eliminate or reduce the appearance of painful chemical burns.


How Do We Get Baking Soda or Bicarbonate of Soda Today?

Nearly 100,000 tones of sodium bicarbonate are produced each year as of 2001. Modern sodium bicarbonate is produced in two different ways:

* The Solvay Process

* In-Situ Leach Mining


The Solvay Process is a method of producing sodium hydrogen carbonate which uses the chemical reaction of ammonia, carbon dioxide and sodium chloride when dissolved in water. Using this process, calcium oxide and ammonia are also produced. Similar processes use solutions of water and soda ash. When carbon dioxide (CO2) is added to the solution in sufficient quantities, sodium hydrogen carbonate precipitates from the solution as a solid. The soda ash used in this process can be obtained by a chemical process using an aqueous carbon dioxide and sodium hydroxide solution or it can be produced by mining trona ore, the naturally occurring form of sodium carbonate.

In-situ leaching is a mining process used to harvest sodium hydrogen carbonate from natural deposits of nahcolite. One of the largest of these naturally occurring deposit mining operations can found at the Piceance Basin in Colorado and is known as the Green River Formation. The bicarbonate of soda is harvested by pumping heated water through the nahcolite beds, dissolving the minerals into a solution. This solution is then cooled and the chemical compound crystallizes as a result.



In addition to the uses already listed, baking soda is also used for a variety of home, garden and industrial uses. An example of an industrial use that has been adopted for home usage is a process called "soda blasting", which uses a high pressure solution of baking soda and water to remove paint and mildew from exterior surfaces in preparation for painting. Due to the chemical's ability to raise pH levels, it is often used to regulate the acid and chlorine levels in pools and hot tubs. The ability to neutralize acid levels and counter certain forms of fungi can also be helpful to gardeners seeking to improve the composition of their soil or garden ponds.

Whether you call it NaHCO3, baking soda or bicarbonate of soda, it is easy to see that this common household chemical compound has a multitude of uses. With its low cost and wide availability, it is easily one of the most useful and versatile items that should be found in every homeowner's kitchen cabinet.


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