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Published: December 2012
Sodium carbonate is a white crystalline solid that is also known as disodium carbonate or soda ash. It is a member of the chlor-alkali chemical family and competes with caustic soda as a source of alkali (sodium oxide) in many processes. About 70% of world soda ash production is derived from synthetic processes and 30% is recovered from natural trona deposits and surface brines. Commercial soda ash is highly purified and is sold in various grades that differ primarily in bulk density.
In 2012, soda ash was produced in over 100 plants located in thirty countries worldwide. Total effective capacity was about 62 million metric tons per year, of which 42% was concentrated in Asia, 24% in North America, and 18% in Europe.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of sodium carbonate:
Developed countries have higher per capita consumption of soda ash but lower growth rates than developing countries. However, the end-use patterns are basically the same for both. Glass production accounts for about 55% of global soda ash consumption, with commercial and residential construction driving flat glass demand, whereas consumer packaging trends, recycling and competition from other packaging materials dictate use in container glass. The second major use for soda ash (about 14%) is in formulated detergents and cleaners as a builder.The third-largest market for soda ash is the chemicals sector (about 10%), where it is used as an alkali source in numerous chemical processes and as a feedstock in the production of sodium chemicals.
Potential new entrants into the U.S. natural soda ash industry share the common obstacle of entrenched producers with large economies of scale that continue to aggressively expand capacity in global increments. This scenario leaves little room for new grassroots producers that lack a significant process/technology advantage to offset this sizable production cost advantage.
Construction of new synthetic soda ash plants is ruled out in most developed countries because of their higher production costs and their negative impact on the environment. The traditional ammonia-soda process generates large volumes of aqueous, chlorine-containing waste that must be discharged. In countries other than the United States, some effluent streams may be sent to the ocean, rivers or deep underground wells. Additional environmental concerns are added whenever a plant complex includes lime quarries and ammonia-production units. Only China and India may be candidates to increase synthetic capacity in the future.
Projected regional average annual growth rates are highest in Asia (16.6%), followed by Africa and the Middle East (6.5%), Central and South America (5.4%), and the CIS region (4.1%). Europe, North America and Oceania are expected to grow much more slowly at around 1.5% annually.