It’s just another Mineral Monday! This week our mineral is trona, which sounds more like a video game character than a mineral. This is one of those minerals that isn’t much to look at, but it makes up for it’s general lack of sparkle and color with it’s usefulness.
Trona is the more common name for trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate. You can understand why they’ve shortened that-it’s a mouthful. It’s an evaporite mineral, which means it forms as water evaporates. The largest trona deposit in the world is located in Wyoming, and it formed 50 million years ago, in Lake Gosiute, which covered an area of 15,000 square miles (that’s smaller than Lake Michigan, but larger than Lake Tanganyika). Volcanoes were erupting very close to the lake, and the ash from those eruptions was rich in sodium. When the ash landed in the lake, it reacted with other minerals in solution in the water, and some of it was eventually deposited as trona as the lake dried up.
Trona’s special talents include being soluble in water, and fluorescing under UV light, but it is most useful as a source of sodium carbonate, or soda ash. Soda ash is one of those unsung heroes of industry. Not many people have heard of it, but it is critical to glass manufacturing, detergents and other chemical processes. It lowers the melting point of silica, making it easier to melt glass at lower temperatures, something the Egyptians figured out about 3,500 years ago. There are synthetic ways to produce soda ash, but here in the US, over 90% of soda ash comes from Wyoming trona mines.
There’s even a town in California named Trona, which is where parts of Star Trek and Planet of the Apes were filmed. Unfortunately the town has seen better days with a 2006 Los Angeles Times article saying:
Even die-hard Trona boosters agree that it has seen better days. They concede that streets lined with torched houses, combined with the pungent odor from the chemical plant, add up to a poor first impression.
Pastor Larry Cox of the First Baptist Church said his first words on entering Trona were “People live here?”
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has offered deputies willing to work in Trona free housing and less jail duty. Most prefer jail.