If the word sodium conjures up memories of feeling bloated and thirsty, you’re on the right track, but you’re thinking of this abundant far too narrowly. Sodium has a great deal of other uses beyond simply making up those granules you sprinkle on bland food.
Sodium is the sixth most abundant element that is present in the Earth’s crust, but it does not occur in isolation. Instead, Sodium can be found as part of feldspars, sodalite, and rock salt, among other things. Sodium is also present in high quantities in oceans, a logicality considering the fact that such bodies are filled with salt water.
Humphry Davy first isolated Sodium in 1807; the name is simply derived from the world “soda,” which should come as no surprise given the many different “sodas” in which Sodium is present. At room temperature, Sodium is a soft, highly reactive metal. When exposed to air, Sodium tarnishes almost immediately, though in its pure state it should actually be quite shiny. When exposed to water, things get more explosive.
The Sodium and water react to create sodium hydroxide, heat, and hydrogen gas. The heat is enough to react with the hydrogen gas and ignite a fire; sometimes this results in an explosion, and sometimes it simply presents as a small fire.
Despite this volatility, Sodium has a wide range of important uses when combined with other materials. Though the metal itself is only strictly useful in a laboratory setting, it becomes more widely applicable when combined with other members of the periodic table.
Sodium and Chlorine come together to make Sodium Chloride, which is actually just table salt. It is also an important material in Baking Soda and Borax. Sodium is not only important for seasoning, de-icing, baking, and cleaning, but it’s also critical for the human body (and the bodies of many other living creatures) to function properly.
Sodium helps regulate blood pressure as well as water levels in the tissue, and it plays an important role in cell health as it is a major component of extracellular fluid. If you have ever found yourself craving salt, it’s likely that your body simply needed more Sodium to efficiently perform its necessary functions.
Another major way that Sodium affects daily health is through its participation in something called the sodium-potassium pump. Cells exchange sodium for potassium ions in a process that keeps them communicative and able to transmit nerve signals.
Owe It to Sodium
Obviously, things would taste a little more plain if Sodium weren’t around to provide table salt, but that Morton’s shaker isn’t the only item that exists thanks to Sodium.
Oddly enough, street lamps have Sodium to thank for their yellow hue. Apparently these lamps, first produced in the 1930s, achieve their soft coloring through a mix of neon gas and vaporized sodium metal. They are a popular choice as street lights due to their high energy efficiency and their ability to illuminate large areas.
Perhaps an even greater tool for efficiency presents itself in the form of washing soda, or Sodium Carbonate. Early research has suggested that small granules of Sodium Carbonate could be added to fossil fuel emissions in order to absorb Carbon Dioxide rather than allowing it to enter the atmosphere.
Sodium may taste good in moderation, but it has a plethora of other functions that don’t require any self control, and it’s abundance doesn’t appear to be threatened by its wide use.