The metal potassium was unknown prior to 1807, when Sir Humphrey Davy identified it by electrolysis of fused potash. In his experiment, globules of pinkish-silvery matter, pure potassium, collected at the negative pole. Most potassium caught fire, but some was collected.
Davy gave the new material the name potassium, from the word potash, a compound word of “pot” and “ash,” reflecting how potassium salts were made by soaking wood ashes in pots of hot water.
The symbol K came about a few years later. In 1813, chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius found that using full names for the elements to be a hindrance and developed a system of chemical notation whereby the elements were given simple written labels.
Because Latin was the common language of science at that time, Berzelius used the initial of the Latin name, or the initial plus the second letter, to designate the element, eg Ag (silver) from argentum, Cu (copper) from cuprum, Fe (iron) from ferrum, and so forth.
K (potassium) comes from kalium, meaning “plant ashes”.
Potash (K2CO3) has been used since the dawn of history for bleaching textiles, and making glass and soap.
Potassium—the “K” in “NPK” on bags of fertiliser—is one of the three primary plant nutrients required for plant growth. It aids in photosynthesis and increases stem strength and root growth.
It should be no surprise then that about 85 per cent of potash production goes into fertiliser.
Potassium is found in many foods, especially meat, milk, fruits and vegetables, and is vital for human life.
Potassium helps cells control the transfer of nutrients through cell membranes. Without potassium, cells lose that control.
Every time you move a muscle, blink your eyes, eat lunch, or yawn while reading this very column, you are using potassium!
In 1870, a mineral source of water-soluble potassium was found in Germany, thus eliminating the need for potashes.
Germany became the world supplier of potassium.
However, potassium is a major element in saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which is used in gunpowder, and Germany ceased exporting potassium chemicals to the United States during the First World War.
To meet wartime needs, other potassium salt resources were developed including lake brines, the dust of cement plants and iron refineries, molasses refinery waste, wood ashes, and kelp.
Because of that experience, the US Congress allocated money to stimulate the study of potash resources in the US.
In 1925, potash (actually, potassium-bearing minerals called sylvinite and langbeinite) was discovered east of Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Production commenced in 1932, and three mines were operating in New Mexico by the beginning of the Second World War.
Imports of potash decreased from 85 per cent in 1930 to 25 per cent in 1939.
“This fortunate situation is directly attributable to the foresight that led the Federal Government to pioneer in the search for potash resources and to encourage and foster the building of a domestic industry that can now supply cheaply all the potash required to meet essential needs.” (Hedges. In: US Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook Review of 1939. Published in 1940, page 1387).
In the 1940s and 1950s, domestic production provided virtually all potash in the US, with New Mexico regularly providing more than 90 per cent of that production.
Potash production in the US peaked in 1966, but began a general decline that same year due to less expensive imports from Saskatchewan, Canada.
Today, the United States imports approximately three quarters of the potash consumed; most of that comes from Canada.
But never fear—the United States has plenty of potash resources should it ever need to develop them.