Investing in Sodium

Sodium is an alkali metal commonly found as sodium chloride, or salt. Soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), is an alkali chemical refi ned from the mineral trona or naturally occurring sodium carbonate-bearing brines (the soda ash from both is referred to as natural soda ash) or manufactured from one of several chemical processes (the soda ash from this process is referred to as synthetic soda ash). Soda ash is an important industrial compound used to manufacture chemicals, glass, pulp and paper, soaps and detergents, and many other familiar consumer products. The United States has the world’s largest natural deposit of trona and is the world’s second ranked soda ash-producing nation. U.S. natural soda ash is extremely competitive in world markets because the majority of the world output of soda ash is made synthetically, which is usually a more expensive process.

Domestic Production and Use: The total value of domestic soda ash (sodium carbonate) produced in 2010 was estimated to be about $1.3 billion. 1 The U.S. soda ash industry comprised four companies in Wyoming operating five plants, one company in California with one plant, and one company with one mothballed plant in Colorado that owns one of the Wyoming plants. The five producers have a combined annual nameplate capacity of 14.5 million tons. Salt, sodium sulfate, and borax were produced as coproducts of sodium carbonate production in California. Sodium bicarbonate, sodium sulfite, and chemical caustic soda were manufactured as coproducts at several of the Wyoming soda ash plants. Sodium bicarbonate was produced at the Colorado operation using soda ash feedstock shipped from the company’s Wyoming facility. Based on final 2009 reported data, the estimated 2010 distribution of soda ash by end use was glass, 46%; chemicals, 29%; soap and detergents, 10%; distributors, 6%; flue gas desulfurization and miscellaneous uses, 3% each; and, pulp and paper, 2%; and water treatment,1%.

The domestic natural sodium sulfate industry consisted of two producers operating two plants, one each in California and Texas. Nine companies operating 11 plants in 9 States recovered byproduct sodium sulfate from various manufacturing processes or products, including battery reclamation, cellulose, resorcinol, silica pigments, and sodium dichromate. About one-half of the total output was a byproduct of these plants in 2010. The total value of natural and synthetic sodium sulfate sold was an estimated $42 million. Estimates of U.S. sodium sulfate consumption by end use were soap and detergents, 35%; glass, 18%; pulp and paper, 15%; carpet fresheners and textiles, 4% each; and miscellaneous, 24%.

Recycling: There is no recycling of soda ash by producers; however, glass container producers are using cullet glass, thereby reducing soda ash consumption. There was some recycling of sodium sulfate by consumers, particularly in the pulp and paper industry, but no recycling by sodium sulfate producers.

Import Sources (2006–09): United Kingdom, 29%; China, 28%; Mexico, 22%; Japan, 7%; and other, 14%. Sodium sulfate: Canada, 86%; China, 4%; Finland, 2%; Japan, 2%; and other, 6%.

Events, Trends, and Issues: The global economic problems in 2009 continued in 2010. The downturn in the residential and commercial construction and automotive industries reduced glass usage and that affected soda ash consumption worldwide. In the third quarter of 2010, domestic soda ash production and export sales increased, especially to South America and southeast Asia. The U.S. soda ash export association raised the export price by $30 per ton effective October 1 citing that global soda ash demand was improving. U.S. soda ash producers announced $10 per ton price increases in May and again in September. The increases were necessary to offset cost increases and to support continued investment in the soda ash business. By yearend, it was uncertain how much of the proposed price increases were accepted by consumers through contract negotiations.

A Wyoming soda ash producer with seven synthetic soda ash plants in Europe withdrew from the U.S. export association effective after December 31, 2010. The company indicated that it was fully capable to logistically and technically serve its worldwide customers. This was the second soda ash company to leave the association since its formation in 1984. Operators of the natural soda ash facility at Beypazari, Turkey, which came onstream in 2009, announced plans to double production capacity by early 2013. The plant was designed to produce one million tons of soda ash annually from underground trona beds. Production costs were estimated to be 30% to 40% lower than the Solvay synthetic soda ash process. The adverse economic conditions throughout most of the world are forecast to improve beginning in 2011. Notwithstanding the continuing economic and energy problems in certain areas of the world, overall global demand for soda ash is expected to grow from 1.5% to 2% annually for the next several years. If the domestic economy and export sales improve, U.S. consumption may be higher in 2011.

China remained the leading exporter and producer of natural and synthetic sodium sulfate in the world. Jiangsu Province is the major area for sodium sulfate production. It was anticipated that this area would produce 4.8 million tons annually by 2013. As of 2008, China represented about three-fourths of world production capacity and more than 70% of world production. The primary use of sodium sulfate worldwide is in powdered detergents. Sodium sulfate is a low-cost, inert, white filler in home laundry detergents. Although powdered home laundry detergents may contain as much as 50% sodium sulfate in their formulation, the market for liquid detergents, which do not contain any sodium sulfate, continued to increase. However, with the major downturn in the world economies beginning in 2008 and continuing into 2010, many consumers have reverted to using more powdered laundry detergents because they are less expensive than their liquid counterparts. Sodium sulfate consumption in the domestic textile industry also has been declining because of imports of less-expensive textile products. Sodium sulfate consumption in 2011 is expected to be comparable with that of 2010, with detergents remaining the leading sodium-sulfate-consuming sector. If the winter of 2010–11 is relatively mild, byproduct recovery of sodium sulfate from automobile batteries may decline because fewer battery failures during mild winter weather reduce recycling. World production and consumption of sodium sulfate have been stagnant but are expected to increase between 2% to 3% per year in the next few years, especially in Asia and South America.

World Production and Reserves: Although data on mine production for natural sodium sulfate are not available, total world production of natural sodium sulfate is estimated to be about 6 million tons. Total world production of byproduct sodium sulfate is estimated to be between 1.5 and 2.0 million tons.

World Resources: Soda ash is obtained from trona and sodium carbonate-rich brines. The world’s largest deposit of trona is in the Green River Basin of Wyoming. About 47 billion tons of identified soda ash resources could be recovered from the 56 billion tons of bedded trona and the 47 billion tons of interbedded or intermixed trona and halite that are in beds more than 1.2 meters thick. Underground room-and-pillar mining, using conventional and continuous mining, is the primary method of mining Wyoming trona ore. This method has an average 45% mining recovery, whereas average recovery from solution mining is 30%. Improved solution-mining techniques, such as horizontal drilling to establish communication between well pairs, could increase this extraction rate and entice companies to develop some of the deeper trona beds. Wyoming trona resources are being depleted at the rate of about 15 million tons per year (8.3 million tons of soda ash). Searles Lake and Owens Lake in California contain an estimated 815 million tons of soda ash reserves. There are at least 62 identified natural sodium carbonate deposits in the world, only some of which have been quantified. Although soda ash can be manufactured from salt and limestone, both of which are practically inexhaustible, synthetic soda ash is more costly to produce and generates environmentally deleterious wastes.

Sodium sulfate resources are sufficient to last hundreds of years at the present rate of world consumption. In addition to the countries with reserves listed above, the following countries also possess identified resources of sodium sulfate: Botswana, China, Egypt, Italy, Mongolia, Romania, and South Africa. Commercial production from domestic resources is from deposits in California and Texas. The brine in Searles Lake, CA, contains about 450 million tons of sodium sulfate resource, representing about 35% of the lake’s brine. In Utah, about 12% of the dissolved salts in the Great Salt Lake is sodium sulfate, representing about 400 million tons of resource. An irregular, 21-meter-thick mirabilite deposit is associated with clay beds 4.5 to 9.1 meters below the lake bottom near Promontory Point, UT. Several playa lakes in west Texas contain underground sodium-sulfate-bearing brines and crystalline material. Other economic and subeconomic deposits of sodium sulfate are near Rhodes Marsh, NV; Grenora, ND; Okanogan County, WA; and Bull Lake, WY. Sodium sulfate also can be obtained as a byproduct from the production of ascorbic acid, boric acid, cellulose, chromium chemicals, lithium carbonate, rayon, resorcinol, and silica pigments and from battery recycling. The quantity and availability of byproduct sodium sulfate are dependent on the production capabilities of the primary industries and the sulfate recovery rates.

Substitutes: Caustic soda can be substituted for soda ash in certain uses, particularly in the pulp and paper, water treatment, and certain chemical sectors. Soda ash, soda liquors, or trona can be used as feedstock to manufacture chemical caustic soda, which is an alternative to electrolytic caustic soda.

In pulp and paper, emulsified sulfur and caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) can replace sodium sulfate. In detergents, a variety of products can substitute for sodium sulfate. In glassmaking, soda ash and calcium sulfate have been substituted for sodium sulfate with less-effective results.

Sodium Producers
Rio Tinto -
K+S AG (ETR:SDF) - - One of the world's largest producers of salt.
ESPI High Purity Metals -
Solvay Chemicals (EBR: SOLB) -
OCI Chemical Corp.
FMC Corp.
Tg Soda Ash
Tata Chemicals - acquired the soda ash business of General Chemical Industrial Products
Penrice Soda Holdings
Alexandria Sodium Carbonate Company - Egyptian soda ash producer
General Chemical (Soda Ash) Partners - General Chemical (75%) and Owens-Illinois (25%)

American Natural Soda Ash Corp (ANSAC) -

American-European Soda Ash Shipping Association (AESSA)

(wiki) - Sodium on Wikipedia
(wiki) - Sodium carbonate on Wikipedia
(wiki) - Sodium sulfate on Wikipedia

Sodium News
2011-08-08 - (im) - Tata says soda-ash prices continue to rise, bemoans high input costs
2011-06-28 - (im) - Price briefing: Zircon marches on; chromite, graphite and soda ash prices expect H2 boost
2011-06-20 - (ici) - Asia soda ash prices poised to rise
2011-06-17 - (f2f) - ANSAC to increase price of Soda Ash by $50.00/MT
2011-06-17 - (sh) - Demand for soda ash to demonstrate significant growth rates
2011-06-17 - (im) - Soda ash prices increase in Europe, following lead abroad
2011-06-13 - (sn) - Cheaper batteries for the grid based on sodium ions
2011-06-13 - (eur) - Under pressure, sodium, hydrogen could undergo a metamorphosis, emerging as superconductor
2011-06-10 - (prn) - FMC starts design work to add capacity to Wyoming soda ash facility
2011-06-09 - (gtm) - Is sodium the future formula for energy storage?
2011-06-09 - (im) - Tata Chemicals expects more soda ash price increases globally
2011-06-08 - (sc) - Solvay and Tianjin Soda Ash Plant set up joint soda ash plant in China
2011-06-07 - (sen) - Bipartisan senate group introduces legislation to help U.S. soda ash producers compete with foreign suppliers
2011-06-03 - (prn) - FMC increases soda ash prices
2011-06-02 - (bs) - High input costs affect margins of soda ash makers
2011-05-25 - (im) - Tata says soda ash demand to rise, bemoans high input costs
2011-05-23 - (im) - High energy prices squeeze soda ash producers profit
2011-05-18 - (im) - Poor soda ash demand and Queensland floods hit Penrice
2010-12-23 - (sc) - New soda ash warehouse in Estonia
2010-05-05 - (sc) - Solvay commissions new sodium bicarbonate plant in USA to serve growing demand for flue gas cleaning

Learn more:

Back to Element Investing