Lye has several uses and is used for the following:
- Food industry: Lye is used to cure many types of food. Curing is the process of partially cooking meat.
- Soap making: Lye in the form of both sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and potassium hydroxide (KOH) is used in making soaps. Lye is added to water, cooled down for a few minutes, and then added to oil and butter. This is then cooked for 1-2 hours and then placed into a mold to make soap bars of various shapes. A soap without lye is technically not a soap.
- Making of household and industrial products: Lye is used to make commercial and industrial cleaners and clogged drain openers because of its cleaning effects and ability to dissolve grease.
- Tissue digestion: NaOH or KOH can be used to digest tissues of animal carcasses. The process is done by placing the animal carcass or body into a sealed chamber and adding a mixture of lye with water. Heat is then applied to accelerate the process. After several hours, the animal body turns into a liquid with coffee-like appearance, and the only solids that remain are fragile bone bits that can be easily crushed mechanically into a fine powder with very little force.
- Fungus identification: A solution of 3-10% KOH is used to identify the presence of fungus in samples of body tissue or body secretions/fluids. This is also called KOH staining.
How is lye made?
The process of making lye involves the following:
- Salt is dissolved into water, and the alt crystals sink to the bottom of the container.
- Graphite rods are inserted into the mixture.
- Current is then passed through the rods.
- The sodium splits from the chlorine (NaCl: common salt), and it reacts with hydrogen in water forming lye.
- Lye crystals get charged and get attached to the graphite rods.
- The liquid is then poured off and allowed to evaporate till only the lye crystals remain. This lye can be used for various purposes.
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