The chemical is known to be one of the strongest bases in the realm of chemistry. While the chemical sodium hydroxide is best seen in industrial plants or chemical laboratories, it is incorporated in so many products that it is hardly unseen at homes. So many materials you encounter everyday either contain the chemical or used the chemical during the manufacturing process. It is commonly called lye or caustic soda and it is one of the most corrosive and one of the most hazardous chemicals on earth. Nonetheless, it is used in the manufacture of detergents, rayon, and paper. It is also an ingredient of many strong cleaning products and is used in the refining of petroleum. One method of manufacturing lye is through passing an electric current through a solution of water and sodium chloride – a process called electrolysis which produces the said base and chlorine.
The most common household items with lye are drain and oven cleaners, which are known as aggressive cleaning agents. This strong hydroxide is effective in removing clogging grease in pipes that form nasty sludge along the drainage. It softens and dissolves grease. This property of a strong base to dissolve fats makes it an effective cleaner. However, being a strong base that it is, it creates great amounts of heat upon dissolution in water. While this heat is effective in hastening the cleaning process in clogged pipes, it may be hazardous to the person exposed. Sometimes enough heat can be generated that a hot steam of water vapor and alkaline fume is formed. This is dangerous because it results to eye irritation that may lead to some degree of visual disability and upper respiratory tract irritation. This is why precautions are always to be followed when using aggressive cleaning liquids that contain strong alkali.
Strong bases like sodium hydroxide have a corrosive nature. Even in dilute concentrations, lye may react with many substances. One of the dangers is skin contact. Strong hydroxides cause damage to skin tissue upon exposure. Burns and ulceration ensue during severe cases. Nevertheless, there are a lot of dangerous substances at home besides this alkali. Having these hazardous chemicals at home should come with prudence. They must be kept well and used according to instructions.
Beyond the hazards of strong bases like lye or caustic soda come the extensive uses of the chemical. When used appropriately, it serves a lot of purposes in which no other chemical may ever be able to act as a substitute.
One of the important uses of the alkali is its being a component of soap making. When caustic soda is mixed with fat, a chemical reaction occurs between the base and the fatty acids. This neutralization is more commonly called in chemistry classes as saponification, a reaction that frees glycerol within the interlocking fatty acid molecules and produces soap. This process is the mother of all soap and detergent products you see in the market now. Soap and detergent are the most common cleaning agents used in homes, offices, health care facilities, restaurants, and hotels. Most home-made soaps are done with caustic soda as an ingredient. Note that the process of soap-making releases another industrially important chemical which is glycerol.
Caustic soda is commercially available in many forms. Pure caustic soda is a white solid, commonly seen as pellets or granules. Another available form is the 50-percent saturated solution. The pure form of this compound is extremely reactive and wrong handling could lead to serious accidents. This is why precautions in storage and use of the chemical are important. Containers used in storing this chemical should be tightly closed. Strict laboratory and industrial regulations demand the use of gloves and eye protection when handling the alkali.