Way-Back Wednesday Looks At The Wyoming Origin of the ‘Hero’ in Your Cupboard

Most baking soda comes from Wyoming, which contains the worlds largest trona deposit.

Annaliese Wiederspahn

December 01, 202110 min read

Christmas cookies 1
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

As the weather starts to cool down and the holidays ramp up, there’s nothing like the warmth infused in homes across The Cowboy State derived from the freshly baked wonders and yummy treats from the household oven. Holiday baking is a time-honored tradition for young and old alike; an activity that defies generation gaps, hair colors, tattoos and political parties. Families bond, friendships are strengthened and homemade deliciousness designed for gift baskets and trays of holiday goodies cool on flat surfaces awaiting their adornments of icing, sprinkles, dust and nonpareils. With all of that ‘heavenly yum’ it’s no wonder that in the process more than a few will fly into mouths, leaving little more than a tiny crumb and a giant smile!  Many baked goods have a common ingredient that many of us (if not most of us) take for granted: baking soda. 

Baking soda is made from soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate. The soda ash is obtained in one of two ways. While it can be manufactured by passing carbon dioxide and ammonia through a concentrated solution of sodium chloride (table salt), in Wyoming it is mined in the form of an ore called trona. Most baking soda comes from Wyoming, which contains the world’s largest trona deposit. According to the Wyoming State Geological Survey there’s no risk of depletion anytime soon. The U.S. Geological Survey in 1997 estimated the total reserve of trona to be 127 billion tons, but only 40 billion tons are recoverable. At the current rate of operation, Wyoming’s reserves of trona will last 2,350 years. According to the Wyoming Geological Survey, Wyoming mines have produced more than 633.2 million tons of trona since 1949.

Trona dates back 50 million years, to when the land surrounding Green River, Wyoming, was covered by a 600-square-mile lake. In the Green River formation there are 42 trona beds that cover about 1,300 square miles. The Green River area in Sweetwater County is known as the “Trona Capital of the World.” 

The trona in Sweetwater County was created by the ancient body of water that became known as Lake Gosiute, and covered an estimated 15,000 square miles in a southwestern Wyoming basin. Over the course of geologic time, with the loss of outflows, a high amount of alkaline (salt brine) began to evaporate, depositing the beds of trona. This occurred because the lake had been fairly shallow and as it evaporated rapidly and repeatedly there was a climate shifting between humid and arid, trapping the once abundant life. This meant the minerals and mud settled in the bottom of the lake while sodium, alkaline and bicarbonate were transported to the lake by runoff water. The mixture of all these elements formed the trona deposits that are mined today. Trona is a sodium carbonate compound that is mined underground then processed into soda ash or bicarbonate of soda, a.k.a. baking soda.

Wyoming has the world’s largest deposit of trona, supplying about 90% of the nation’s soda ash. This mineral is Wyoming’s top export and is shipped to markets around the globe.  In 2018, Wyoming mines produced over 17.4 million tons of trona and employed 2,225 people. West of Green River are a number of major employers in the mining process including Tronox, Ciner Wyoming LP, TATA Chemicals North America, Church and Dwight Company, Inc. and Solvay Minerals, Inc. Based out of Riverton, BTI (Bonntran, Inc.) trucks with their familiar logo of blue snow-capped mountains and bright sunshine are often seen hauling soda ash. 

A 600 HP Kenworth with main and pup loaded with 52 tons of soda ash is typical of BTI’s maximization of loads. Photo courtesy of BTI, a Riverton, Wyoming based company, specializing in the transportation of bulk minerals and chemicals for the worldwide mining, petroleum and agricultural industries. Want to be part of the amazing team at BTI? Apply HERE!

So, what is trona? It is a naturally-occurring mineral that is chemically known as sodium sesquicarbonate. Trona is the raw material which is refined into soda ash. Soda ash, in turn, is used to make glass, paper products, laundry detergents, and many other products. It also is used in the manufacturing of other chemicals, such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and sodium phosphates (detergents). Much of the soda ash hauled by BTI is destined for industrial uses in the glass industry and for water treatment. Glass making consumes about half of all soda ash, followed by the chemical industry, which uses about a quarter of the output. Other uses include soap, paper manufacturing, and water treatment, and all baking soda comes from soda ash, which means you probably have a box or two of Wyoming trona products in your kitchen!

FUN FACTOID: Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, which requires an acid and a liquid to become activated and help baked goods rise. Conversely, baking powder includes sodium bicarbonate, as well as an acid. It only needs a liquid to become activated. 

Sodium bicarbonate (IUPAC name: sodium hydrogen carbonate), commonly known as baking soda or bicarbonate of soda, is a chemical compound with the formula NaHCO3. It is a salt composed of a sodium cation (Na+) and a bicarbonate anion (HCO3−). Sodium bicarbonate is a white solid that is crystalline, but often appears as a fine powder. It has a slightly salty, alkaline taste resembling that of washing soda (sodium carbonate). The natural mineral form is nahcolite. It is a component of the mineral natron and is found dissolved in many mineral springs.

The science of baking soda has a long and interesting history. First isolated by Nicolas Leblanc in the 1790s, it wasn’t until the Solvay process was introduced in the 1860s that industrial-scale production became possible. The Solvay process or ammonia-soda process is the major industrial process for the production of sodium carbonate. The ammonia-soda process was developed into its modern form by the Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay during the 1860s. The ingredients for this are readily available and inexpensive: salt brine and limestone. Today, this chemical powerhouse we know as baking soda is produced globally, with an estimated volume of two million tons per year.

Why so much? Well, this unassuming salt has a multitude of domestic and industrial uses, including as a food additive, medicine, and cleaning product. It also finds its way into fireworks, fire extinguishers, fungicides, and pesticides, and may even have new utility for companies looking to improve their environmental footprint. 

One of baking soda’s most common uses is for cooking, often as a leavening agent in baked goods. Chemical leavening requires an acidic catalyst in the batter, such as yogurt or buttermilk. On contact with the sodium bicarbonate, this causes the release of carbon dioxide in a simple acid-base reaction. Alternatively, baking soda can release smaller volumes of carbon dioxide without an acid simply via the process of thermal decomposition at temperatures above 50°C, although this typically leaves a characteristic bitter flavor. Either way, the release of gas into the mixture as it cooks changes the density and texture of a finished product.

If ingested in different ways, the gas-producing property of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) can cause very different effects. For people with acid reflux, sodium bicarbonate can act as an antacid to settle the stomach. It can also get rid of unwanted cockroaches, as feeding them a mix of bicarbonate and sugar behind the refrigerator can cause their internal organs to explode – yikes!

In 1927, the Journal of Chemical Education reported baking soda could be used to prevent the common cold by keeping an alkaline balance in the body through regulated doses of sodium bicarbonate, along with small quantities of calcidine and iodine. Today, we are experiencing a viral pandemic of epic proportions and more people have become concerned with cleanliness and overall good health. While the information that antibiotics do not tackle viral infections has been drilled home, many people remain concerned about antibiotic resistance due to overuse of antibiotics for bacterial infections. Baking soda should be top-of-the-mind because science knows that in addition to the antibacterial properties of baking soda it can alter bacterial susceptibility to antibiotics by targeting proton motive force – making it a potential new weapon in the arms race against antibiotic resistance, possibly as an adjunct to antibiotic therapy.

Baking soda has long been used to tackle many household chores – from polishing silver to removing a mildew build-up on your shower curtain. It is also often used to neutralize bad odors – which explains why so many refrigerators contain a box of the white, powdery substance. Baking soda is a staple in many libraries, used to eradicate weird or musty smells from the pages of old or heavily used books, and baking soda can even be used in the conservation of old or fragile paper with a high acid content, where it can act as a neutralizer and buffer against further decay.

Click here for a completely free (no log-in additional information required) downloadable and printable document with dozens of tips for using baking soda, experiments for teaching and entertaining kids (you’ll need this during the holiday break from school!) plus an additional twelve “Holiday Secrets Using Baking Soda.” (Special thanks to UW Extension Office in Oconto, Wisconsin)

New research into the science of baking soda is focusing on larger-scale applications of baking soda’s cleaning and absorbent properties. In fruit production, it has proved useful in removing pesticides from the surface of eating apples more efficiently than commercial sanitizers. This is due to the chemical degradation of the pesticide when it comes into contact with the sodium bicarbonate salt. 

There may also be industrial-scale cleaning potential for coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities where sodium bicarbonate can be used as a cost-effective solution to neutralize flue gases – acting to both reduce air emissions and generate a marketable product.

If the holiday season puts you in a celebratory mood, there’s more good news: There is a National Bicarbonate of Soda Day on December 30. It’s the day for celebrating the science of baking soda and is appropriately timed, considering all the baked goods we consume around the holidays, and the often-inevitable indigestion that follows our indulgences. Clearly this humble salt has numerous uses, with no sign of its utility diminishing in our modern world.  As we have seen in this way-back look at the science of baking soda, this hardworking compound definitely earns its very own day of celebration!

Another helpful hint: For those who always wish they had a holiday letter to include with that tray of cookies or freshly baked bread, give the recipient a copy of this article so they have something to read while they munch, and share a new-found appreciation of the holiday (and everyday) ‘hero’ in their cupboard, too. 

This page from Wyoming’s rich history has been presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor. While we can’t change the past, a financial strategy for the future can be planned. If you have questions, concerns or are simply looking for a friendly advisor to discover your goals, discuss strategy and look to your financial future, contact Mick Pryor today.

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Annaliese Wiederspahn

State Political Reporter