Boric acid is a white or colorless crystalline powder that is slightly less toxic than table salt, according to the website of Uses for Boric Acid in a Nutshell. Useful either as a powder or dissolved in water, boric acid is also known as boracic acid and orthoboric acid. It is a naturally occurring chemical compound made up of boron, oxygen and hydrogen and can be found as a component of many minerals, including borax and boracite.
In a fact sheet published by Rose Mill Co., a manufacturer of boric acid and related products, the history of borate derivatives---including boric acid---is traced back thousands of years to their early use in the Far East and Middle East. At that time, borates were used as a food preservative, antiseptic agent and for cleaning purposes. About 900 A.D. the Chinese began using borax in the pottery glazing process. Marco Polo was the first to introduce borax to the European market. When borax deposits were discovered in Nevada and California's Death Valley, it heralded the beginning of the legendary 20-mule teams that hauled the mined mineral to market. Extracted from those wagon loads of borax was boric acid powder, which proved to be a very versatile chemical compound.
A Multiplicity of Uses
With the ready availability of borax in the United States and elsewhere around the world, scientists and laymen quickly found an array of applications for boric acid. Today, boric acid powder is found in such diverse products as glass, fiberglass, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, flame retardants, food preservatives, nutritional supplements, wood preservatives and pesticides.
The popularity of boric acid powder in pharmaceuticals and folk medicine probably can be credited to its antiseptic properties. It is used widely in such pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications as baby powder, contact lens solution, vaginal remedies, makeup and anti-aging preparations. Boric acid powder also is used in folk remedies to combat everything from athlete's foot to eye infections.
The boron in boric acid powder is believed to have anti-arthritic properties and promotes bone and joint health, explaining its wide use in nutritional supplements.
The ability to stand up to high temperatures has made boric acid powder a popular ingredient in the making of both glass and fiberglass. Its popularity as an ingredient in flame retardants is based on a couple of properties explained in the Rose Mill fact sheet. It "inhibits the release of combustible gases from burning cellulosic materials, such as cotton, wood and paper-based products ... and also releases chemically bonded water to further reduce combustion."
What Lies Ahead?
Expanded use of boric acid powder in industrial applications seems likely. The growing interest among manufacturers can be explained by boric acid's ability to lower both energy usage and water consumption during the manufacturing process. Rose Mill reported that recent scientific research has proven "that nano-particles of boric acid dramatically increase the performance of motor oil, leading to lower fuel usage and less oil required over the life of an engine."
Borax Vs. Boric Acid
Though borax and boric acid come from the same element, boron, they have different properties and different uses in the home.
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