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Overview

Potassium is one of the alkali metals. The alkali metals are the elements that make up Group 1 (IA) of the periodic table. The periodic table is a chart that shows how chemical elements are related to one another. The alkali metals also include lithium, sodium, rubidium, cesium, and francium. They are among the most active metals.

Potassium is so active that it never occurs free in nature. It always occurs in compounds, combined with other elements. It was first prepared in pure form in 1807 by English chemist Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829). Davy used a new method of isolating elements that he had invented, electrolysis. In electrolysis, an electric current is passed through a molten (melted) compound. The electrical current breaks the compound into its elements. (See sidebar on Davy in the calcium entry in Volume 1.)

There are very few uses for potassium as a pure element. However, compounds of potassium have many important applications, the most important of which is as a fertilizer.

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Group 1 (IA) Alkali metal

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Discovery and naming

Early humans were familiar with potash, a potassium compound that forms when wood burns. Wood ashes were washed with water to dissolve the potash. It was then recovered by evaporating the water. Potash was often called vegetable alkali. That name comes from the origin of the material ("vegetable" plants that contain wood) and the most important property of the material, alkali. The word alkali means a strong, harsh chemical that can be used for cleaning. Common household lye (such as Drano) is a typical alkali.

The chemical name for potash is potassium carbonate (K CO ). Early humans also knew about a similar substance called mineral alkali. This material was made from certain kinds of rocks. But it also had alkali properties. "Mineral alkali" was also called soda ash. The modern chemical name for soda ash is sodium carbonate (Na CO ).

For many centuries, people had trouble telling "vegetable alkali" and "mineral alkali" apart. The two materials looked and acted very much alike. For example, they could both be used as cleaning materials. The main difference between them was the source from which they came. It was not until the eighteenth century that chemists understood the difference between potash (vegetable alkali) and soda ash (mineral alkali).

By the late 1700s, chemists were reasonably sure that both potash and soda ash contained elements they had never seen. They tried to think of ways to break these compounds down into their elements. The first method that Davy tried was to pass an electric current through a water solution of one compound or the other. But no new element was ever formed. What Davy did not know was how active the elements potassium and sodium are. Both elements are freed when an electric current is passed through a water solution of potash or soda ash. But as soon as the element is formed, it reacts immediately with the water. The free element can never be recovered by this method.

Then Davy thought of another way to separate potash and soda ash into their elements. He decided to use no water in his experiment. Instead, he melted a sample of potash and a sample of soda ash. Then he passed an electric current through the molten (melted) substances. He was amazed to see a tiny liquid droplet of metal formed in each case. The droplet was the first piece of potassium and sodium ever to be seen by a human.

Davy had his first success with potassium using this approach on October 6, 1807. A few days later he repeated his experiment with soda ash and produced pure sodium metal. Davy named these two elements after their much older names: potassium for "potash" and sodium for "soda ash."

Physical properties

Potassium is a soft, silvery-white metal with a melting point of 63°C (145°F) and a boiling point of 770°C (1,420°F). Its density is 0.862 grams per cubic centimeter, less than that of water (1.00 grams per cubic centimeter). That means that potassium metal can float on water. Chemically, though, that's not a good idea (see "Chemical properties" below).

The melting point of potassium is very low for a metal. It will melt over the flame of a candle flame.

Chemical properties

Like the other alkali metals, potassium is very active. It reacts with water violently and gives off gas: So much heat is produced in this reaction that the hydrogen gas actually catches fire and may explode. Floating potassium metal on the surface of water is not a good idea! In that instance, the potassium would skip along the surface of the water. The skipping is caused by hydrogen gas produced in the reaction pushing the metal around. The potassium would soon catch fire, burn, and, perhaps, explode.

Potassium reacts readily with all acids and with all non-metals, such as and

Potassium is the eighth most abundant element in the Earth's crust. Its abundance is estimated to be about 2.0 to 2.5 percent. It is just slightly less abundant than its alkali cousin, sodium.

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