The Solvay process or ammonia-soda process is the major industrial process for the production of sodium carbonate
The Solvay process results in soda ash (predominantly sodium carbonate (Na2CO3)) from brine (as a source of sodium chloride (NaCl)) and from limestone (as a source of calcium carbonate (CaCO3)). The overall process is:
2 NaCl + CaCO3 → Na2CO3 + CaCl2
In the first step in the process, carbon dioxide (CO2) passes through a concentrated aqueous solution of sodium chloride (table salt, NaCl) and ammonia (NH3).
NaCl + CO2 + NH3 + H2O → NaHCO3 + NH4Cl (I)
In industrial practice, the reaction is carried out by passing concentrated brine through two towers. In the first, ammonia bubbles up through the brine (salt water) and is absorbed by it. In the second, carbon dioxide bubbles up through the ammoniated brine, and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) precipitates out of the solution.
The carbon dioxide required for reaction (I) is produced by heating ("calcination") of the limestone at 950 - 1100 °C. The calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the limestone is partially converted to quicklime (calcium oxide (CaO)) and carbon dioxide:
CaCO3 → CO2 + CaO (II)
The sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) that precipitates out in reaction (I) is filtered out from the hot ammonium chloride (NH4Cl) solution, and the solution is then reacted with the quicklime (calcium oxide (CaO)) left over from heating the limestone in step (II).
2 NH4Cl + CaO → 2 NH3 + CaCl2 + H2O (III)
CaO makes a strong basic solution. The ammonia from reaction (III) is recycled back to the initial brine solution of reaction (I).
The sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) precipitate from reaction (I) is then converted to the final product, sodium carbonate (washing soda: Na2CO3), by calcination (160 - 230 C), producing water and carbon dioxide as byproducts:
2 NaHCO3 → Na2CO3 + H2O + CO2 (IV)
The carbon dioxide from step (IV) is recovered for re-use in step (I). When properly designed and operated, a Solvay plant can reclaim almost all its ammonia, and consumes only small amounts of additional ammonia to make up for losses.