Borax, also known as sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate, is an important boron compound, a mineral, and a salt of boric acid. Powdered borax is white, consisting of soft colorless crystals that dissolve in water. A number of closely related minerals or chemical compounds that differ in their crystal water content are referred to as borax, but the word is usually used to refer to the decahydrate. Commercially sold borax is partially dehydrated.
Borax is a component of many detergents, cosmetics, and enamel glazes. It is used to make buffer solutions in biochemistry, as a fire retardant, as an anti-fungal compound, in the manufacture of fiberglass, as a flux in metallurgy, neutron-capture shields for radioactive sources, a texturing agent in cooking, as a precursor for other boron compounds, and along with its inverse, boric acid, is useful as an insecticide.
In artisanal gold mining, the borax method is sometimes used as a substitute for toxic mercury in the gold extraction process. Borax was reportedly used by gold miners in parts of the Philippines in the 1900s.
Borax was first discovered in dry lake beds in Tibet and was imported via the Silk Road to the Arabian Peninsula in the 8th Century AD. Borax first came into common use in the late 19th century when Francis Marion Smith's Pacific Coast Borax Company began to market and popularize a large variety of applications under the 20 Mule Team Borax trademark, named for the method by which borax was originally hauled out of the California and Nevada deserts in large enough quantities to make it cheap and commonly available.
The term borax is often used for a number of closely related minerals or chemical compounds that differ in their crystal water content:
- anhydrous sodium tetraborate, Na2B4O7
- sodium tetraborate pentahydrate, Na2B4O7·5H2O
- sodium tetraborate decahydrate, Na2B4O7·10H2O
Borax is generally described as Na2B4O7·10H2O. However, it is better formulated as Na2[B4O5(OH)4]·8H2O, since borax contains the [B4O5(OH)4]2− ion. In this structure, there are two four-coordinate boron atoms (two BO4 tetrahedra) and two three-coordinate boron atoms (two BO3 triangles).
Na2B4O7·10H2O + 2 HCl → 4 H3BO3 + 2 NaCl + 5 H2O
When borax is added to a flame, it produces a yellow green color. Borax is not used for this purpose in fireworks due to the overwhelming yellow color of sodium. Boric acid is used to color methanol flames a transparent green.
The English word borax is Latinized: the Middle English form was boras, from Old French boras, bourras. That may have been from medieval Latin baurach (another English spelling), borac(-/um/em), borax, along with Spanish borrax (> borraj) and Italian borrace, in the 9th century. Another name for borax is tincal, from Sanskrit.
The word tincal "tinkle", or tincar "tinker", refers to crude borax, before it is purified, as mined from lake deposits in Tibet, Persia, and other parts of Asia. The word was adopted in the 17th century from Malay tingkal and from Urdu/Persian/Arabic تنکار tinkār/tankār; thus the two forms in English. These all appear to be related to the Sanskrit टांकण ṭānkaṇa.
Borax occurs naturally in evaporite deposits produced by the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes. The most commercially important deposits are found in: Turkey; Boron, California; and Searles Lake, California. Also, borax has been found at many other locations in the Southwestern United States, the Atacama desert in Chile, newly discovered deposits in Bolivia, and in Tibet and Romania. Borax can also be produced synthetically from other boron compounds.
Borate ions (commonly supplied as boric acid) are used in biochemical and chemical laboratories to make buffers, e.g. for polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis of DNA and RNA, such as TBE buffer (borate buffered tris-hydroxymethylaminomethonium) or the newer SB buffer or BBS buffer (borate buffered saline) in coating procedures. Borate buffers (usually at pH 8) are also used as preferential equilibration solution in dimethyl pimelimidate (DMP) based crosslinking reactions.
Borax as a source of borate has been used to take advantage of the co-complexing ability of borate with other agents in water to form complex ions with various substances. Borate and a suitable polymer bed are used to chromatograph non-glycosylated hemoglobin differentially from glycosylated hemoglobin (chiefly HbA1c), which is an indicator of long term hyperglycemia in diabetes mellitus.
Ca2+ (aq) +
O7 (aq) →
O7 (s)↓ + 2
Mg2+ (aq) +
O7 (aq) →
O7 (s)↓ + 2
The sodium ions introduced do not make water ‘hard’. This method is suitable for removing both temporary and permanent types of hardness.
A mixture of borax and ammonium chloride is used as a flux when welding iron and steel. It lowers the melting point of the unwanted iron oxide (scale), allowing it to run off. Borax is also used mixed with water as a flux when soldering jewelry metals such as gold or silver, where it allows the molten solder to wet the metal and flow evenly into the joint. Borax is also a good flux for "pre-tinning" tungsten with zinc — making the tungsten soft-solderable. Borax is often used as a flux for forge welding.
Small-scale gold mining
Main article: Flubber (material)
A rubbery polymer sometimes called Slime, Flubber, 'gluep' or 'glurch' (or erroneously called Silly Putty, which is based on silicone polymers), can be made by cross-linking polyvinyl alcohol with borax. Making flubber from polyvinyl acetate-based glues, such as Elmer's Glue, and borax is a common elementary-science demonstration.
Borax, given the E number E285, is used as a food additive in some countries, but is banned in some countries, like the U.S., and Thailand. As a consequence, certain foods, such as caviar, produced for sale in the US contain higher levels of salt to assist preservation. Its use as a cooking ingredient is to add a firm rubbery texture to the food, or as a preservative. In oriental cooking it is mostly used for its texturing properties. In Asia, borax (Chinese: 硼砂; pinyin: péng shā or Chinese: 月石; pinyin: yuè shí) was found to have been added to some Chinese foods like hand-pulled noodles lamian and some rice noodles like shahe fen, kway teow, and chee cheong fun recipes. In Indonesia it is a common, but forbidden, additive to such foods as noodles, bakso (meatballs), and steamed rice. The country's Directorate of Consumer Protection warns of the risk of liver cancer with high consumption over a period of 5–10 years.
Borax, sodium tetraborate decahydrate, according to one study, is not acutely toxic. Its LD50 (median lethal dose) score is tested at 2.66 g/kg in rats, meaning that a significant dose of the chemical is needed to cause severe symptoms or death. The lethal dose is not necessarily the same for humans. On pesticide information websites it is listed as a non-lethal compound and of no hazardous concerns.
Borax has been in use as an insecticide in the United States with various restrictions since 1946. All restrictions were removed in February 1986 due to the low toxicity of borax, as reported in two EPA documents relating to boric acid and borax.
EPA has determined that, because they are of low toxicity and occur naturally, boric acid and its sodium salts should be exempted from the requirement of a tolerance (maximum residue limit) for all raw agricultural commodities.
Although it cited inconclusive data, a re-evaluation in 2006 by the EPA still found that "There were no signs of toxicity observed during the study and no evidence of cytotoxicity to the target organ." In the reevaluation, a study of toxicity due to overexposure was checked and the findings were that "The residential handler inhalation risks due to boric acid and its sodium salts as active ingredients are not a risk concern and do not exceed the level of concern..." but that there could be some risk of irritation to children inhaling it if used as a powder for cleaning rugs.
Conditions defined as "over-exposure" to borax dust can cause respiratory irritation, while no skin irritation is known to exist due to borax. Ingestion may cause gastrointestinal distress including nausea, persistent vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Effects on the vascular system and human brain include headaches and lethargy, but are less frequent. "In severe poisonings, a beefy red skin rash affecting palms, soles, buttocks and scrotum has been described. With severe poisoning, erythematous and exfoliative rash, unconsciousness, respiratory depression, and renal failure."
A draft risk assessment released by Health Canada in July 2016 has found that overexposure to boric acid has the potential to cause developmental and reproductive health effects. Since people are already exposed to boric acid naturally through their diets and water, Health Canada advised that exposure from other sources should be reduced as much as possible, especially for children and pregnant women. The concern is not with any one product, but rather multiple exposures from a variety of sources. With this in mind, the department also announced that registrations for certain pesticides that contain boric acid, which are commonly used in homes, will have their registrations cancelled and be phased out of the marketplace. As well, new, more protective label directions are being introduced for other boric acid pesticides that continue to be registered in Canada (for example, enclosed bait stations and spot treatments using gel formulations).
Risk to fertility and pregnancy
Borax was added to the Substance of Very High Concern (SVHC) candidate list on 16 December 2010. The SVHC candidate list is part of the EU Regulations on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals 2006 (REACH), and the addition was based on the revised classification of borax as toxic for reproduction category 1B under the CLP Regulations. Substances and mixtures imported into the EU which contain borax are now required to be labelled with the warnings "May damage fertility" and "May damage the unborn child". It was proposed for addition to REACH Annex XIV by the ECHA on 1 July 2015. If this recommendation is approved, all imports and uses of borax in the EU will have to be authorized by the ECHA.[needs update] Review of the boron toxicity (as boric acid and borates) published 2012 in Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health concluded: "It clearly appears that human B [boron] exposures, even in the highest exposed cohorts, are too low to reach the blood (and target tissue) concentrations that would be required to exert adverse effects on reproductive functions."