A high school friend once related the story about how his father, a chemist for an environmental waste concern, disposed of a problematic quantity of metallic sodium by dumping it into one of the more polluted rivers in southern New England. Despite the fact that the local residents were used to seeing all manner of noxious hijinx in the river, the resulting explosion was supposedly enough to warrant a call to the police and an expeditious retreat back to the labs. It was a good story, but not especially believable back in the day.
After seeing this video of how the War Department dealt with surplus sodium in 1947, I’m not so sure. I had always known how reactive sodium is, ever since demonstrations in chemistry class where a flake of the soft gray metal would dance about in a petri dish full of water and eventually light up for a few exciting seconds. The way the US government decided to dispose of 20 tons of sodium was another thing altogether. The metal was surplus war production, probably used in incendiary bombs and in the production of aluminum for airplanes. No longer willing to stockpile it, the government tried to interest industry in the metal, but to no avail due to the hazard and expense of shipping the stuff. Sadly (and as was often the case in those days), they just decided to dump it.
The final resting place was to be Lake Lenore, a biologically dead alkali lake near the Grand Coulee in eastern Washington state. The 3,500 pound (1,600 kg) ingots were unceremoniously rolled down into the lake, and the ensuing explosions were pretty spectacular. The video below is newsreel film from the event; it’s pretty low quality, so you might want to check out what just a pound of sodium does when it hits the water.
Watching sodium react so violently with water might just put you in the mood to get in on this action yourself. That’s understandable, but probably not a great idea. Had Lake Lenore not already been devoid of aquatic life in 1947, it might well have been after the government got done with it. Sodium combines with water to produce an aqueous solution of sodium hydroxide and copious amounts of hydrogen gas, in a violently exothermic fashion. None of this is good for critters and it’s likely to be received poorly by law enforcement and wildlife protection agencies alike.
How Metallic Sodium is Made
If you insist on trying your hand at making your own sodium metal you’ll face some challenges. On a commercial scale, metallic sodium is made by electrolysis of molten sodium chloride. With temperatures pushing 800°C and currents in the kiloamp range, it’s not exactly DIY-friendly.
There are non-electrolytic methods, though, and NurdRage has a helpful guide to a solvent extraction of sodium that is much easier and yields a fair amount of the pure metal. It’s not without its drawbacks, though; the best solvent is dioxane, a carcinogenic and noxious substance in its own right.
If you do choose to make sodium, or just order some online, please have a plan for disposing of it. We know that times were different back in the 40s, and that Lake Lenore was already dead, but it’s hard to watch that video and not cringe.