Soda ash (sodium carbonate, or Na₂CO₃) continues
to be one of the world’s most widely-used
inorganic chemicals. It is used in glass-making, soap and
detergent production, flue-gas de-sulfurization, textiles,
chemical processing and food, and more recently in lithium
carbonate production and the recycling of lead-acid
Prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has
seen vast swathes of industry shuttered across the world for
several weeks, demand for the mineral had been broadly flat
year on year, according both to major producers’
results statements and the US Geological Survey (USGS). But the
potential for demand growth, particularly in container glass,
detergents and emerging applications, has prompted many
producers to expand their capacity.
While capacity growth has exceeded consumption in the past
five years, limiting price appreciation for soda ash, suppliers
remained confident that downstream markets would swell to meet
the increased output.
Global soda ash production, including China, was around 60
million tonnes in 2019, up from around 57 million tonnes in
2018, according to trade data and figures compiled by the
Before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, Solvay, the
world’s biggest producer of soda ash, cited
forecasts indicating that the figure for annual global soda ash
demand would grow by 10 million tonnes (excluding China)
between 2018 and 2030, with 4 million tonnes of that extra
annual demand materializing between 2019 and 2023.
Production capacity was being expanded around the world,
particularly in Europe, Asia and North America, but led by
Turkey and the United States, where producers have access to
large deposits of the raw material trona, allowing them to
produce low-cost natural soda ash for export.
Future demand was expected to be driven by export markets in
emerging economies such as those in South-East Asia, South
America, the Middle East and Africa, for the manufacturing of
detergents and glass. South American soda ash demand was also
being driven by the extraction of lithium for battery
But in the first quarter of 2020, before the outbreak of
Covid-19, soda ash prices from the US and Europe softened due
to weaker demand in key export markets.
China has expanded its domestic production capacity for
synthetic soda ash significantly in the past five years, to
supply local glass and chemical industries.
But slowing economic growth and competition from cheap US
and Turkish imports meant that China’s soda ash
industry has struggled with oversupply, forcing it to export
China accounted for around 41% of soda ash demand and 44% of
global supply in 2019, meaning that it is technically
self-sufficient in soda ash, but still exported around 1.3
million tonnes and imported roughly an equivalent volume from
other sources, according to trade data.
The main market for soda ash (specifically dense soda ash) is
the glass industry, which in turn relies heavily on the
construction and automotive markets (which consume flat glass)
and consumer products (container glass).
Industry figures indicated that glass manufacturers consumed
more than half of all the soda ash produced in 2019 (around
53%), with around 29% going into flat glass; 19% went into
container glass; and other segments (such as fiber and
specialty glasses) consumed 5%.
The construction industry was the biggest consumer of flat
glass, followed by the automotive sector. Before the appearance
of Covid-19, market research company GlobalData predicted an
acceleration in the rate of growth in the global construction
industry in 2020 to 3.1%, up from 2.6% from 2019.
Following the onset of the pandemic, however, the forecast
for growth in 2020 was revised downward to 0.5%. This was
expected to have a significant knock-on effect on demand for
construction materials, including glass.
Prospects in the automotive market were even less
optimistic. Car manufacturing and sales have slowed
significantly in the US, Europe and China, following around a
decade of steady growth leading up to 2019.
Data from the International Organization of Motor Vehicle
Manufacturers showed that 91.8 million vehicles were produced
worldwide in 2019, down by 5.2% from the year before. With the
exception of longer-term expectations for a surge in production
of autonomous and electric-power vehicles, further declines
were expected. After Covid-19, the outlook was likely to be
even more bleak.
In the container glass market, moves to reduce plastic
consumption because of environmental and potential toxicity
concerns were likely to benefit container-glass producers. On
top of this, a surge in demand for beer, wine and spirits has
increased consumption of glass bottles.
Container-glass production was not yet growing fast enough
to cause any tightness in the soda ash market, however. In
North America, it was actually declining and many domestic
float glass plants have closed in the past 10 years. A handful
of new plants and expansions were planned for the next two
years, but the additional capacity would account for a fraction
of the volume that North America has lost to emerging
The US imports glass containers from cheaper producers in
Mexico and Asia, meaning that much of the United
States’ abundant soda ash supply is destined for
offshore glassmakers. The USGS estimates that the US exported
6.9 million tonnes of soda ash in 2019, more than 58% of the 12
million tonnes the US produced in the year.
In Europe, although new glass manufacturing lines were put
into operation in central and Eastern Europe in 2019, and more
were due in Russia this year, soda ash supply was said to be
more than sufficient to service these operations.
Longer-term, it was predicted that global container glass
production from raw materials could increase significantly. But
this partly depends on glass recycling levels, which are
currently around 35% in the US and 78% in Europe.
The chemicals industry consumes between 15% and 20% of annual
soda ash production. Soda ash is used as a raw material in the
production of sodium bicarbonates, phosphates, sodium
silicates, chrome chemicals, photographic chemicals, chemical
fertilizers, bentonites (which are an essential component for
manufacturing coatings), food preservatives, carbonated drinks
and personal care products.
In the oil and gas industry, soda ash is used to adjust the
acidity level of drilling fluids. Although soda ash consumption
in the chemicals market was relatively stable, volatility in
the oil market was a heightened concern for some soda ash
Petrochemical and oil markets face severe disruption from US
sanctions on international trade with Iran, in addition to
collapsing prices as a result of a production dispute between
the Opec group and Russia, and plummeting demand due to the
effects of Covid-19 lockdowns.
In the longer term, the advance of the chemical industry in
developing countries was expected to support soda ash demand,
but its effect on the environment (in terms of water
consumption and waste), and competition from alternatives such
as sodium silicate and caustic soda, may restrain market growth
in the coming years.
Another major driver of demand for soda ash, and specifically
light soda ash, in the past 10 years has been detergent and
soap consumption in developing economies. Overall, soap and
detergents made up around 12% of global soda ash consumption in
While consumers in developed economies have generally
shifted to liquid detergents, which do not use soda ash,
cheaper and more readily available powder detergents were still
primarily used in Africa, Asia and South America, and demand
was increasing in step with rises in living standards.
According to estimates by US soda ash producer Genesis
Alkali, average soda ash consumption in the US was 17 lb
(7.7kg) per household per year, while in developing economies
that figure was just 5 lb (2.3kg), suggesting that there was
considerable room for consumption to grow.
Lithium, lead batteries
Growing demand for lithium from the global battery industry was
a relatively small but nonetheless important and growing market
for soda ash, which is one of the principal raw materials used
in the production of lithium carbonate. Soda ash is added to
purified lithium brine to aid the precipitation of
Much of the world’s lithium carbonate is
produced on the Andean salars of Chile and Argentina, so while
lithium’s overall effect on global soda ash demand
appeared relatively modest, it has had a transformative effect
on South America’s soda ash supply chain.
According to industry sources, soda ash demand in South
America has grown at an average annual rate of around 13% since
2013 and was expected to grow at an average rate of 19.3% over
the next five years, if lithium carbonate demand continues to
grow at the same rate as before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Adding soda ash into smelters used to recycle lead-acid
batteries to aid recovery of metallic lead is a process that
has been researched for the past three decades with the
potential to create a significant new market for soda ash in
The outbreak of Covid-19 across the world has had significant
consequences for many industries, including soda ash.
In China, which has been increasing its domestic synthetic
soda ash capacity significantly over the past five years, the
China Soda Industry Association ordered all producers to reduce
production by 30% in January to help stabilize the market in
the wake of the country’s Covid-19 lockdown. This
restriction was lifted in mid-April, but with companies asked
to voluntarily limit production in response to market demand
for the foreseeable future.
In South Africa, Tata Chemicals declared force
majeure on shipments of soda ash to the country in early
April, after government restrictions resulted in the closure of
several berths in Durban, Tata’s main port of
entry for soda ash. In India, Tata has said that its soda ash
plants were working at lower capacity but that its global
facilities were up and running.
Soda ash producer Ciech Soda Romania, part of Polish group
Ciech, announced at the end of March that it was "forced" to
enter into "a prolonged standby" in the context of the economic
uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and after
unsuccessful negotiations for the resumption of industrial
steam supply to the factory.
These production restrictions could help support the soda
ash supply-demand balance and mitigate declines in prices,
depending on how end-markets responded to the lockdowns.
While the Covid-19 lockdowns were likely to have an
ultimately negative effect on some end markets, particularly
flat glass demand, they may positively affect others, such as
container glass and food, due to the sustained high consumption
of store-bought food and beverage products during the pandemic,
as well as higher demand for pharmaceuticals.