Sodium is a chemical element with the symbol Na (from Latin natrium) and atomic number 11. It is a soft, silvery-white, highly reactive metal. Sodium is an alkali metal, being in group 1 of the periodic table, because it has a single electron in its outer shell, which it readily donates, creating a positively charged ion—the Na+ cation. Its only stable isotope is 23Na. The free metal does not occur in nature, and must be prepared from compounds. Sodium is the sixth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust and exists in numerous minerals such as feldspars, sodalite, and rock salt (NaCl). Many salts of sodium are highly water-soluble: sodium ions have been leached by the action of water from the Earth’s minerals over eons, and thus sodium and chlorine are the most common dissolved elements by weight in the oceans.
Sodium was first isolated by Humphry Davy in 1807 by the electrolysis of sodium hydroxide. Among many other useful sodium compounds, sodium hydroxide (lye) is used in soap manufacture, and sodium chloride (edible salt) is a de-icing agent and a nutrient for animals including humans.
Sodium is an essential element for all animals and some plants. Sodium ions are the major cation in the extracellular fluid (ECF) and as such are the major contributor to the ECF osmotic pressure and ECF compartment volume. Loss of water from the ECF compartment increases the sodium concentration, a condition called hypernatremia. Isotonic loss of water and sodium from the ECF compartment decreases the size of that compartment in a condition called ECF hypovolemia.
By means of the sodium-potassium pump, living human cells pump three sodium ions out of the cell in exchange for two potassium ions pumped in; comparing ion concentrations across the cell membrane, inside to outside, potassium measures about 40:1, and sodium, about 1:10. In nerve cells, the electrical charge across the cell membrane enables transmission of the nerve impulse—an action potential—when the charge is dissipated; sodium plays a key role in that activity.
Because of its importance in human health, salt has long been an important commodity, as shown by the English word salary, which derives from salarium, the wafers of salt sometimes given to Roman soldiers along with their other wages. In medieval Europe, a compound of sodium with the Latin name of sodanum was used as a headache remedy. The name sodium is thought to originate from the Arabic suda, meaning headache, as the headache-alleviating properties of sodium carbonate or soda were well known in early times. Although sodium, sometimes called soda, had long been recognized in compounds, the metal itself was not isolated until 1807 by Sir Humphry Davy through the electrolysis of sodium hydroxide. In 1809, the German physicist and chemist Ludwig Wilhelm Gilbert proposed the names Natronium for Humphry Davy’s “sodium” and Kalium for Davy’s “potassium”. The chemical abbreviation for sodium was first published in 1814 by Jöns Jakob Berzelius in his system of atomic symbols, and is an abbreviation of the element’s New Latin name natrium, which refers to the Egyptian natron, a natural mineral salt mainly consisting of hydrated sodium carbonate. Natron historically had several important industrial and household uses, later eclipsed by other sodium compounds.
Occurence on earth
The Earth’s crust contains 2.27% sodium, making it the seventh most abundant element on Earth and the fifth most abundant metal, behind aluminium, iron, calcium, and magnesium and ahead of potassium. Sodium’s estimated oceanic abundance is 1.08×104 milligrams per liter. Because of its high reactivity, it is never found as a pure element. It is found in many minerals, some very soluble, such as halite and natron, others much less soluble, such as amphibole and zeolite. The insolubility of certain sodium minerals such as cryolite and feldspar arises from their polymeric anions, which in the case of feldspar is a polysilicate.
Occurence in the universe
Atomic sodium has a very strong spectral line in the yellow-orange part of the spectrum (the same line as is used in sodium vapour street lights). This appears as an absorption line in many types of stars, including the Sun. The line was first studied in 1814 by Joseph von Fraunhofer during his investigation of the lines in the solar spectrum, now known as the Fraunhofer lines. Fraunhofer named it the ‘D line’, although it is now known to actually be a group of closely spaced lines split by a fine and hyperfine structure.
The strength of the D line means it has been detected in many other astronomical environments. In stars, it is seen in any whose surfaces are cool enough for sodium to exist in atomic form (rather than ionised). This corresponds to stars of roughly F-type and cooler. Many other stars appear to have a sodium absorption line, but this is actually caused by gas in the foreground interstellar medium. The two can be distinguished via high-resolution spectroscopy, because interstellar lines are much narrower than those broadened by stellar rotation.
Sodium has also been detected in numerous Solar System environments, including Mercury’s atmosphere, the exosphere of the Moon, and numerous other bodies. Some comets have a sodium tail, which was first detected in observations of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Sodium has even been detected in the atmospheres of some extrasolar planets via transit spectroscopy.
Employed only in rather specialized applications, only about 100,000 tonnes of metallic sodium are produced annually. Metallic sodium was first produced commercially in the late 19th century by carbothermal reduction of sodium carbonate at 1100 °C, as the first step of the Deville process for the production of aluminium:
Na2CO3 + 2 C → 2 Na + 3 CO
The high demand for aluminium created the need for the production of sodium. The introduction of the Hall–Héroult process for the production of aluminium by electrolysing a molten salt bath ended the need for large quantities of sodium. A related process based on the reduction of sodium hydroxide was developed in 1886.
Sodium is now produced commercially through the electrolysis of molten sodium chloride, based on a process patented in 1924. This is done in a Downs cell in which the NaCl is mixed with calcium chloride to lower the melting point below 700 °C. As calcium is less electropositive than sodium, no calcium will be deposited at the cathode. This method is less expensive than the previous Castner process (the electrolysis of sodium hydroxide).
The market for sodium is volatile due to the difficulty in its storage and shipping; it must be stored under a dry inert gas atmosphere or anhydrous mineral oil to prevent the formation of a surface layer of sodium oxide or sodium superoxide.
Though metallic sodium has some important uses, the major applications for sodium use compounds; millions of tons of sodium chloride, hydroxide, and carbonate are produced annually. Sodium chloride is extensively used for anti-icing and de-icing and as a preservative; examples of the uses of sodium bicarbonate include baking, as a raising agent, and sodablasting. Along with potassium, many important medicines have sodium added to improve their bioavailability; though potassium is the better ion in most cases, sodium is chosen for its lower price and atomic weight. Sodium hydride is used as a base for various reactions (such as the aldol reaction) in organic chemistry, and as a reducing agent in inorganic chemistry.
Metallic sodium is used mainly for the production of sodium borohydride, sodium azide, indigo, and triphenylphosphine. A once-common use was the making of tetraethyllead and titanium metal; because of the move away from TEL and new titanium production methods, the production of sodium declined after 1970. Sodium is also used as an alloying metal, an anti-scaling agent, and as a reducing agent for metals when other materials are ineffective. Note the free element is not used as a scaling agent, ions in the water are exchanged for sodium ions. Sodium plasma (“vapor”) lamps are often used for street lighting in cities, shedding light that ranges from yellow-orange to peach as the pressure increases. By itself or with potassium, sodium is a desiccant; it gives an intense blue coloration with benzophenone when the desiccate is dry. In organic synthesis, sodium is used in various reactions such as the Birch reduction, and the sodium fusion test is conducted to qualitatively analyse compounds. Sodium reacts with alcohol and gives alkoxides, and when sodium is dissolved in ammonia solution, it can be used to reduce alkynes to trans-alkenes. Lasers emitting light at the sodium D line are used to create artificial laser guide stars that assist in the adaptive optics for land-based visible-light telescopes.
Liquid sodium is used as a heat transfer fluid in some types of nuclear reactors because it has the high thermal conductivity and low neutron absorption cross section required to achieve a high neutron flux in the reactor. The high boiling point of sodium allows the reactor to operate at ambient (normal) pressure, but the drawbacks include its opacity, which hinders visual maintenance, and its explosive properties. Radioactive sodium-24 may be produced by neutron bombardment during operation, posing a slight radiation hazard; the radioactivity stops within a few days after removal from the reactor. If a reactor needs to be shut down frequently, NaK is used; because NaK is a liquid at room temperature, the coolant does not solidify in the pipes. In this case, the pyrophoricity of potassium requires extra precautions to prevent and detect leaks. Another heat transfer application is poppet valves in high-performance internal combustion engines; the valve stems are partially filled with sodium and work as a heat pipe to cool the valves.
Biological role in humans
In humans, sodium is an essential mineral that regulates blood volume, blood pressure, osmotic equilibrium and pH. The minimum physiological requirement for sodium is estimated to range from about 120 milligrams per day in newborns to 500 milligrams per day over the age of 10.
Sodium chloride is the principal source of sodium in the diet, and is used as seasoning and preservative in such commodities as pickled preserves and jerky; for Americans, most sodium chloride comes from processed foods. Other sources of sodium are its natural occurrence in food and such food additives as monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium nitrite, sodium saccharin, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), and sodium benzoate.
The U.S. Institute of Medicine set its Tolerable Upper Intake Level for sodium at 2.3 grams per day, but the average person in the United States consumes 3.4 grams per day.
Studies have found that lowering sodium intake by 2 g per day tends to lower systolic blood pressure by about two to four mm Hg. It has been estimated that such a decrease in sodium intake would lead to between 9 and 17% fewer cases of hypertension.
Hypertension causes 7.6 million premature deaths worldwide each year. (Note that salt contains about 39.3% sodium—the rest being chlorine and trace chemicals; thus, 2.3 g sodium is about 5.9 g, or 5.3 ml, of salt—about one US teaspoon.) The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1.5 g of sodium per day.
One study found that people with or without hypertension who excreted less than 3 grams of sodium per day in their urine (and therefore were taking in less than 3 g/d) had a higher risk of death, stroke, or heart attack than those excreting 4 to 5 grams per day. Levels of 7 g per day or more in people with hypertension were associated with higher mortality and cardiovascular events, but this was not found to be true for people without hypertension. The US FDA states that adults with hypertension and prehypertension should reduce daily intake to 1.5 g.
The renin–angiotensin system regulates the amount of fluid and sodium concentration in the body. Reduction of blood pressure and sodium concentration in the kidney result in the production of renin, which in turn produces aldosterone and angiotensin, which stimulates the reabsorption of sodium back into the bloodstream. When the concentration of sodium increases, the production of renin decreases, and the sodium concentration returns to normal. The sodium ion (Na+) is an important electrolyte in neuron function, and in osmoregulation between cells and the extracellular fluid. This is accomplished in all animals by Na+/K+-ATPase, an active transporter pumping ions against the gradient, and sodium/potassium channels. Sodium is the most prevalent metallic ion in extracellular fluid.
Unusually low or high sodium levels in humans are recognized in medicine as hyponatremia and hypernatremia. These conditions may be caused by genetic factors, ageing, or prolonged vomiting or diarrhea.
Biological role in plants
In C4 plants, sodium is a micronutrient that aids metabolism, specifically in regeneration of phosphoenolpyruvate and synthesis of chlorophyll. In others, it substitutes for potassium in several roles, such as maintaining turgor pressure and aiding in the opening and closing of stomata. Excess sodium in the soil can limit the uptake of water by decreasing the water potential, which may result in plant wilting; excess concentrations in the cytoplasm can lead to enzyme inhibition, which in turn causes necrosis and chlorosis. In response, some plants have developed mechanisms to limit sodium uptake in the roots, to store it in cell vacuoles, and restrict salt transport from roots to leaves; excess sodium may also be stored in old plant tissue, limiting the damage to new growth. Halophytes have adapted to be able to flourish in sodium rich environments.
Sodium forms flammable hydrogen and caustic sodium hydroxide on contact with water; ingestion and contact with moisture on skin, eyes or mucous membranes can cause severe burns. Sodium spontaneously explodes in the presence of water due to the formation of hydrogen (highly explosive) and sodium hydroxide (which dissolves in the water, liberating more surface). However, sodium exposed to air and ignited or reaching autoignition (reported to occur when a molten pool of sodium reaches about 290 °C) displays a relatively mild fire. In the case of massive (non-molten) pieces of sodium, the reaction with oxygen eventually becomes slow due to formation of a protective layer. Fire extinguishers based on water accelerate sodium fires; those based on carbon dioxide and bromochlorodifluoromethane should not be used on sodium fire. Metal fires are Class D, but not all Class D extinguishers are workable with sodium. An effective extinguishing agent for sodium fires is Met-L-X. Other effective agents include Lith-X, which has graphite powder and an organophosphate flame retardant, and dry sand. Sodium fires are prevented in nuclear reactors by isolating sodium from oxygen by surrounding sodium pipes with inert gas. Pool-type sodium fires are prevented using diverse design measures called catch pan systems. They collect leaking sodium into a leak-recovery tank where it is isolated from oxygen.