Potassium is a soft whitish metal that was first isolated from potash by Sir Humphry Davy in 1807. It is the seventh most abundant element found in the Earth’s crust, and chemically similar to sodium. It is very reactive in its native form and usually found as an ionic compound in nature. Potassium compounds are valuable in industrial and biological applications. Potash is still the main source of potassium and is found in the Dead Sea, and also mined in Utah, California, New Mexico, Germany and Saskatchewan. Some of its uses are discussed below.
Uses of potassium in industry:
Salts like potassium bromide, potassium chloride, potassium iodide are water soluble salts and commonly used in photography. Potassium hydroxide is a strong alkali used in pH meters and for the manufacture of potassium salts. This compound is also used in industrial cleaners. Potassium nitrate is used as an agricultural fertilizer. Gold mining processes use potassium cyanide to dissolve precious metals by forming complexes. Potash or potassium carbonate is used to make glass and soap. Potassium nitrate may also be used in the glass-making process.
Potassium vapor is used in magnetometers, which is an instrument to measure the direction of magnetic fields. An alloy of potassium and sodium is used as desiccants, or a as heat-transfer medium. Other industries that use potassium include inks and dye industry, which utilizes potassium chromate. This is also used to make explosives and fireworks. Potassium fluorosilicate is used to make ceramics and enamel.
Uses of potassium in the food industry and in the human body:
In nature, potassium is found commonly in seawater. It is important for many functions in the human body and a balanced diet including fruits and vegetables is necessary to maintain a healthy level of potassium. It is also used as a salt substitute by patients suffering from hypertension. Potassium in the body is used for protein synthesis, for conversion of glucose to glycogen, in the activation of enzymes, important for muscle contraction and relaxation, and generally maintaining the electrolyte balance and water balance in the body.
Potassium sodium tartrate is a constituent of baking powder, and potassium bromate is found in flour. Potassium bisulfate is used as a food preservative.
Other uses of potassium:
Potassium ions are also found in the soil and important for the agricultural and horticulture industry as a fertilizer. Potassium chloride is often used at the time of surgeries and ironically also in lethal injections during executions.