Chlor-Alkali: Production Process and Uses


Chlor-alkali production is an important industrial process that yields chlorine, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and hydrogen gas from its main raw materials of salt (sodium chloride) and water. This electrolysis process has various applications across multiple industries globally.

The Electrolysis Process
The chlor-alkali manufacturing process utilizes electrolysis to split brine solution (sodium chloride dissolved in water) into its basic components – chlorine, sodium hydroxide and hydrogen. There are three main electrolysis methods used in industry – mercury cell process, diaphragm cell process and membrane cell process.

The mercury cell process was widely used for over 100 years but is now being phased out due to environmental concerns over mercury Usage. In this process, electrolysis takes place in a tank containing a steel cathode and a mercury pool as the anode. Sodium hydroxide is formed at the cathode while chlorine is produced at the anode.

The diaphragm cell process is the second most common technique. Here, the electrolysis chamber is separated by an asbestos diaphragm and sodium hydroxide is formed on the cathode side and chlorine evolution occurs on the anode side.

Modern plants now mostly use membrane cell electrolysis with a polymer membrane separating the chambers. This process is more energy efficient and environment friendly compared to previous methods. The membrane allows only the sodium ions to pass through to form sodium hydroxide while chlorine ions migrate to the anode compartment.

End Uses of Chlorine
Chlorine has widespread applications primarily due to its disinfectant and bleaching properties. Some key uses of chlorine include:

– Water treatment: Chlor-Alkali is used for disinfecting municipal drinking water supplies to kill bacteria and viruses. Around 3 million tons of chlorine are produced annually just for water treatment.

– Bleaching of paper: The pulp and paper industry uses chlorine based chemicals for bleaching wood pulp and brightening paper. This accounts for around 20% of total chlorine demand.

– Production of plastics: Chlorine derivatives like ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride are monomers used to manufacture polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, windows and various plastic pipes, bottles and containers.

– Disinfectants: Chlorine is the active ingredient in many disinfectants used across hospitals, kitchens and other applications where disinfection is essential like swimming pools.

– Pharmaceuticals: Chlorine atom containing organochlorides are important pharmaceutical intermediates and active ingredients used in many drugs.

– Chemicals manufacturing: Chlorine is used as a feedstock to produce thousands of important organic and inorganic chemicals. Some examples are solvents, refrigerants, propellants, dyes, adhesives etc.

End Uses of Sodium Hydroxide
Sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye, finds widespread applications across industries due to its strong alkaline nature. Some key uses include:

– Soap and detergent manufacturing: Caustic soda is a primary raw material in producing soaps, liquid and bar soaps, synthetic detergents and so on.

– Pulp and paper: Sodium hydroxide acts as a bleaching agent, aids in brightening paper and removing wood lignin in the pulp and paper making process.

– Aluminum refining: It plays a vital role in the Bayer process of refining bauxite ore into alumina, which is further processed into pure aluminum metal.

– Chemicals manufacturing: Caustic soda serves as an intermediate for numerous organic and inorganic chemicals, plastics, drugs, dyes and other products.

– Water treatment: Sodium hydroxide aids in adjusting pH, softening and neutralizing waste waters before disposal into environment.

– Oil and gas refining: It finds application in refining crude oil and treatment of waste gases from refineries and petrochemical units.

– Metallurgy: Sodium hydroxide plays a role in pickling (cleaning) of steel surfaces to remove rust and scale. It acts as a flux in welding and metal joining processes as well.

Health and Safety Considerations
While chlor-alkali manufacturing has revolutionized numerous industries, the inherently corrosive nature of chlorine and sodium hydroxide demands proper safety precautions. Leakage of chlorine gas can prove fatal in excessive exposures and sodium hydroxide burns the skin on contact. Strict adherence to protocols, personal protective equipment for workers and continuous monitoring of plants are necessary to prevent accidents. Growing environmental regulations also mandate reduction of mercury usage and adoption of advanced closed-loop systems to curb potential pollution issues.

Chlor-alkali production through electrolysis of brine is a backbone industrial process that supplies the basic building blocks for a multitude of major manufacturing sectors worldwide. With expanding global population and industrial growth, the demand for chlorine and sodium hydroxide is likely to remain robust in the foreseeable future. Continuous efficiency improvements with new cell technologies will be important to deliver these essential chemicals in a safe and sustainable manner.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it