Although potassium is the seventh most abundant element on earth and makes up 2.4% of the planet’s crust, it is not found free in nature. Instead, it needs to be isolated by electrolysis or thermal reduction.
Highly Reactive Metal
The first person to extract potassium by means of electrolysis was British scientist Sir Humphry Davy in 1807. The only metal lighter than potassium is lithium. It is silvery white and soft in texture, and must be stored in a mineral oil like kerosene to avoid being oxydized. If potassium is exposed to water, it can spontaneously combust.
As the properties of potassium were determined, such as the ability to neutralize acids and transfer heat when combined with sodium, its use in the Industrial Revolution began to grow. But it was only really in the 20th century, when potassium was combined into the compound potassium chromate that is corporate applications really took off. Products using this variation include fireworks, inks, dyes and matches, as well as the tanning of leather.
Use as Fertilizer
Potassium has also become a key ingredient in mass-produced fertilizer and is widely used throughout the world. In developing countries especially, the study of how to enrich and renew the natural supply of potassium in agricultural fields is ongoing.
Such is the demand and need for potassium fertilizer that it has led to the creation of massive companies. At the beginning of 2011, the top two such producing firms are Canadian Potash and American Mosaic. However, nipping at their heels in this relatively specialized marketplace (there are only 13 firms total in the sector) is the newly merged Russian outfit of Uralkali and Silvinit. With an output of 10.3 metric tons and ramp-up plans for the next few years, the firm headed by billionaire Suleiman Kerimov could soon become number one.
With the world population growth on the increase and arable lands decreasing, the need for potassium fertilizer in the future is expected to continue to steadily increase.
Haynes, William M.., and David R. Lide
CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics
91th ed. Boca Raton (Fla.): CRC Press, 2010. Print.
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Sir Humphry Davy
Times of India
UAS to Host 2-Day Symposium on Potassium