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Sodium is the chemical element in the periodic table that has the symbol Na (Natrium in Latin) and atomic number 11. Sodium is a soft, waxy, silvery reactive metal belonging to the alkali metals that is abundant in natural compounds (especially halite). It is highly reactive, burns with a yellow flame, reacts violently with water and oxidizes in air (which is why pure sodium must be stored in oil).

Notable characteristics

Like the other alkali metals, sodium is a soft, light-weight, silvery white, reactive element that is never found as a pure element in nature. Sodium floats in water, as well as decomposing it to release hydrogen gas and hydroxide ions. If ground to a fine enough powder, sodium will ignite spontaneously in water.

  • Sodium is necessary for regulation of blood and body fluids, transmission of nerve impulses, heart activity, and certain metabolic functions. We consume much more than we actually need. It is estimated that the average American only needs 500mg per day, but usually Americans get 6,000 to 12,000 mg per day.

Under extreme pressure, sodium departs from standard rules for changing to a liquid state. Most materials need more thermal energy to melt under pressure than they do at normal atmospheric pressure. This is because the molecules are packed closer together and have less room to move.

At a pressure of 30 gigapascals (300,000 times sea level atmospheric pressure), sodium's melting temperature begins to drop. At around 100 gigapascals, sodium will melt at near room temperature.

A possible explanation for the aberrant behavior of sodium is that this element has one free electron that is pushed closer to the other 10 electrons when placed under pressure forcing interaction that is not normally present. While under pressure, solid sodium assumes several odd crystal structures suggesting that the liquid might have unusual properties such as superconduction or superfluidity. (Gregoryanz, et al., 2005)


Sodium in its metallic form is an essential component in the making of esters and in the manufacture of organic compounds. This alkali metal is also a component of sodium chloride (NaCl) which is vital to life. Other uses:

  • In certain alloys to improve their structure.
  • In soap (in combination with fatty acids).
  • To descale (make its surface smooth) metal.
  • To purify molten metals.
  • In sodium vapor lamps, an efficient means of producing light from electricity.
  • As a heat transfer fluid in some types of nuclear reactors.

NaCl, a compound of sodium ions and chloride ions, is an important heat transfer material.


Sodium (English, soda) has long been recognized in compounds, but was not isolated until 1807 by Sir Humphry Davy through the electrolysis of caustic soda. In medieval Europe a compound of sodium with the Latin name of sodanum was used as a headache remedy. Sodium's symbol, Na, comes for the neo-Latin name for a common sodium compound named natrium, which comes from the Greek nítron, a kind of natural salt. As early as 1860 Kirchhoff and Bunsen noted the sensitivity with which a flame test for Na could be. Stating in Annalen der Physik und der Chemie in the paper "Chemical Analysis by Observation of Spectra": "In a corner of our 60 cu.m. room farthest away from the apparatus, we exploded 3 mg. of sodium chlorate with milk sugar while observing the nonluminous flame before the slit. After a few minutes, the flame gradually turned yellow and showed a strong sodium line that disappeared only after 10 minutes. From the weight of the sodium salt and the volume of air in the room, we easily calculate that one part by weight of air could not contain more than 1/20 millionth weight of sodium."


Sodium is relatively abundant in stars and the D spectral lines of this element are among the most prominent in star light. Sodium makes up about 2.6% by weight of the Earth's crust making it the fourth most abundant element overall and the most abundant alkali metal.

At the end of the 19th century, sodium was chemically prepared by heating sodium carbonate with carbon to 1100 °C.

Na2CO3 (liquid) + 2C (solid, coke) → 2Na (vapor) + 3CO (gas).

It is now produced commercially through the electrolysis of liquid sodium chloride. This is done in a Down's cell in which the NaCl is mixed with calcium chloride to lower the melting point below 700 °C. As calcium is more electropositive than sodium, no calcium will be formed at the cathode. This method is less expensive than the previous method of electrolyzing sodium hydroxide.

Overview of a Downs cell for production of sodium metal.

Metallic sodium cost about 15 to 20 US cents per pound (US$0.30/kg to US$0.45/kg) in 1997 but reagent grade (ACS) sodium cost about US$35 per pound (US$75/kg) in 1990.


Sodium chloride, better known as common salt, is the most common compound of sodium, but sodium occurs in many other minerals, such as amphibole, cryolite, halite, soda niter, zeolite, etc. Sodium compounds are important to the chemical, glass, metal, paper, petroleum, soap, and textile industries. Soap is generally a sodium salt of certain fatty acids.

The sodium compounds that are the most important to industry are common salt (NaCl), soda ash (Na2CO3), baking soda (NaHCO3), caustic soda (NaOH), Chile saltpeter (NaNO3), di- and tri-sodium phosphates, sodium thiosulfate (hypo, Na2S2O3 · 5H2O), and borax (Na2B4O7 · 10H2O).


There are thirteen isotopes of sodium that have been recognized. The only stable isotope is Na-23. Sodium has two radioactive cosmogenic isotopes (Na-22, half-life = 2.605 years; Na-24, half-life ≈ 15 hours).

Acute neutron radiation exposure (e.g., from a nuclear criticality accident) converts some of the stable Na-23 in human blood plasma to Na-24. By measuring the concentration of this isotope, the neutron radiation dosage to the victim can be computed.


The flame test for sodium displays a brilliantly bright yellow emission due to the so called "sodium D-lines" at 588.9950 and 589.5924 nanometers.

Sodium's powdered form is highly explosive in water and a poison combined and uncombined with many other elements. This metal should be handled carefully at all times. Sodium must be stored either in an inert atmosphere, or under mineral oil (normally under kerosene).

Physiology and sodium ions

Sodium ions play a diverse and important role in many physiological processes. Excitable cells, for example, rely on the entry of Na+ to cause a depolarization. An example of this is signal transduction in the human central nervous system.

Some potent neurotoxins, such as batrachotoxin, increase the sodium ion permeability of the cell membranes in nerves and muscles, causing a massive and irreversible depolarization of the membranes, with potentially fatal consequences.


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