AskDefine | Define potassium

Dictionary Definition

potassium n : a light soft silver-white metallic element of the alkali metal group; oxidizes rapidly in air and reacts violently with water; is abundant in nature in combined forms occurring in sea water and in carnallite and kainite and sylvite [syn: K, atomic number 19]

User Contributed Dictionary




From potassa + -ium.


  1. A soft, waxy, silvery reactive metal that is never found unbound in nature; an element (symbol K) with an atomic number of 19 and atomic weight of 39.0983. The symbol is derived from the Latin kalium.

Derived terms

Related terms


the chemical element


  • Potassa and Potassium in the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 1974 edition.

External links

For etymology and more information refer to: (A lot of the translations were taken from that site with permission from the author)

Extensive Definition

Potassium () is a chemical element. It has the symbol K ( → lang-la kalium) and atomic number 19. The name "potassium" comes from the word "potash", as potassium was first isolated from potash. Potassium is a soft silvery-white metallic alkali metal that occurs naturally bound to other elements in seawater and many minerals. It oxidizes rapidly in air and is very reactive with water, generating sufficient heat to ignite the evolved hydrogen. In many respects, potassium and sodium are chemically similar, although they have very different functions in organisms in general, and in animal cells in particular.


Potassium metal is never found free, as it reacts violently with the abundant water in nature. As it is very electropositive, potassium metal is difficult to obtain from its minerals. Potassium salts such as carnallite, langbeinite, polyhalite, and sylvite form extensive deposits in ancient lake and seabeds, making extraction of potassium salts in these environments commercially viable. The principal source of potassium, potash, is mined in Saskatchewan, California, Germany, New Mexico, Utah, and in other places around the world. Three thousand feet below the surface of Saskatchewan are large deposits of potash which are important sources of this element and its salts, with several large mines in operation since the 1960s. Saskatchewan pioneered the use of freezing of wet sands (the Blairmore formation) in order to drive mine shafts through them. The main mining company is the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan. The oceans are another source of potassium, but the quantity present in a given volume of seawater is relatively low compared with sodium.


Pure potassium metal can be isolated by electrolysis of its hydroxide in a process that has changed little since Davy.
The activity of natural potassium is 31 Bq/g.


Physical properties

Potassium is the second least dense metal; only lithium is less dense. It is a soft, low-melting solid that can easily be cut with a knife. Freshly cut potassium is silvery in appearance, but in air it begins to tarnish toward grey immediately. Potassium concentration in solution is commonly determined by flame photometry, atomic absorption spectrophotometry, inductively coupled plasma, or ion selective electrodes.

Chemical properties

Potassium must be protected from air for storage to prevent disintegration of the metal from oxide and hydroxide corrosion. Often samples are maintained under a reducing medium such as kerosene.
Like the other alkali metals, potassium reacts violently with water, producing hydrogen. The reaction is notably more violent than that of lithium or sodium with water, and is sufficiently exothermic that the evolved hydrogen gas ignites.
2K(s) + 2H2O(l) → H2(g) + 2KOH(aq)
Because potassium reacts quickly with even traces of water, and its reaction products are nonvolatile, it is sometimes used alone, or as NaK (an alloy with sodium which is liquid at room temperature) to dry solvents prior to distillation. In this role, it serves as a potent desiccant.
Potassium hydroxide reacts strongly with carbon dioxide to produce potassium carbonate, and is used to remove traces of CO2 from air.
Potassium compounds generally have excellent water solubility, due to the high hydration energy of the K+ ion. The potassium ion is colorless in water.
Methods of separating potassium by precipitation, sometimes used for gravimetric analysis, include the use of sodium tetraphenyl boron, hexachloroplatinic acid, and sodium cobaltinitrite.

Potassium cations in the body

Biochemical function

Potassium ions, (generally referred to as "postasium") are important in neuron (brain and nerve) function, and in influencing osmotic balance between cells and the interstitial fluid.. It is also the major cation in animal cells.
Potassium may be detected by taste because it triggers three of the five types of tastebuds, according to concentration. Dilute solutions of potassium ion taste sweet (allowing moderate concentrations in milk and juices), while higher concentrations become increasingly bitter/alkaline, and finally also salty to the taste. The combined bitterness and saltiness of high potassium content solutions makes high-dose potassium supplementation by liquid drinks a palatability challenge.

Membrane polarization

Potassium is also important in allowing muscle contraction and the sending of all nerve impulses in animals through action potentials. By nature of their electrostatic and chemical properties, K+ ions are larger than Na+ ions, and ion channels and pumps in cell membranes can distinguish between the two types of ions, actively pumping or passively allowing one of the two ions to pass, while blocking the other.
A shortage of potassium in body fluids may cause a potentially fatal condition known as hypokalemia, typically resulting from diarrhea, increased diuresis and vomiting. Deficiency symptoms include muscle weakness, paralytic ileus, ECG abnormalities, decreased reflex response and in severe cases respiratory paralysis, alkalosis and cardiac arrhythmia.

Filtration and excretion

Potassium is an essential mineral micronutrient in human nutrition; it is the major cation (positive ion) inside animal cells, and it is thus important in maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance in the body. Sodium makes up most of the cations of blood plasma at about 145 milliequivalents per liter (3345 milligrams) and potassium makes up most of the cell fluid cations at about 150 milliequivalents per liter (4800 milligrams). Plasma is filtered through the glomerulus of the kidneys in enormous amounts, about 180 liters per day. Thus 602,000 milligrams of sodium and 33,000 milligrams of potassium are filtered each day. All but the 1000-10,000 milligrams of sodium and the 1000-4000 milligrams of potassium likely to be in the diet must be reabsorbed. Sodium must be reabsorbed in such a way as to keep the blood volume exactly right and the osmotic pressure correct; potassium must be reabsorbed in such a way as to keep serum concentration as close as possible to 4.8 milliequivalents (about 190 milligrams) per liter. Sodium pumps must always operate to conserve sodium. Potassium must sometimes be conserved also, but since the amount of potassium in the blood plasma is very small and the pool of potassium in the cells is about thirty times as large, the situation is not so critical for potassium. Since potassium is moved passively in counter flow to sodium in response to an apparent (but not actual) Donnan equilibrium, the urine can never sink below the concentration of potassium in serum except sometimes by actively excreting water at the end of the processing. Potassium is secreted twice and reabsorbed three times before the urine reaches the collecting tubules. At that point, it usually has about the same potassium concentration as plasma. If potassium were removed from the diet, there would remain a minimum obligatory kidney excretion of about 200 mg per day when the serum declines to 3.0-3.5 milliequivalents per liter in about one week, and can never be cut off completely. Because it cannot be cut off completely, death will result when the whole body potassium declines to the vicinity of one-half full capacity. At the end of the processing, potassium is secreted one more time if the serum levels are too high.
The potassium moves passively through pores in the cell wall. When ions move through pumps there is a gate in the pumps on either side of the cell wall and only one gate can be open at once. As a result 100 ions are forced through per second. Pores have only one gate and there one kind of ion only can stream through at 10 million to 100 million ions per second. The pores require calcium in order to open although it is thought that the calcium works in reverse by blocking at least one of the pores. Carbonyl groups inside the pore on the amino acids mimics the water hydration that takes place in water solution by the nature of the electrostatic charges on four carbonyl groups inside the pore.

Potassium in the diet

Adequate intake can generally be guaranteed by eating a variety of foods containing potassium and deficiency is rare in healthy individuals eating a balanced diet. Foods with high sources of potassium include orange juice, potatoes, bananas, avocados, tomatoes, broccoli, soybeans and apricots, although it is also common in most fruits, vegetables and meats . Diets high in potassium can reduce the risk of hypertension and a potassium deficiency combined with an inadequate thiamine intake has produced heart disease in rats. The 2004 guidelines of the Institute of Medicine specify a DRI of 4,000mg of potassium, though most Americans consume only half that amount per day. Similarly, in the European Union, particularly in Germany and Italy, insufficient potassium intake is somewhat common.
Supplements of potassium in medicine are most widely used in conjunction with loop diuretics and thiazides, classes of diuretics which rid the body of sodium and water, but have the side effect of also causing potassium loss in urine. A variety of medical supplements are available. If potassium supplements are used, such as sodium free baking powder and sodium free table salt, inadequate thiamine can cause beriberi.
Individuals suffering from kidney diseases may suffer adverse health effects from consuming large quantities of dietary potassium. End stage renal failure patients undergoing therapy by renal dialysis must observe strict dietary limits on potassium intake, since the kidneys control potassium excretion, and buildup of blood concentrations of potassium may trigger fatal cardiac arrhythmia. Acute hyperkalemia can be reduced through eating baking soda, or glucose, hyperventilation and perspiration.


Biological applications

Potassium is an essential component of plant nutrition and is found in most soil types. Its primary use in agriculture, horticulture and hydroponic culture as a fertilizer as the chloride (KCl), sulfate () or nitrate ().
In animal cells, potassium ions are vital to keeping cells alive (see Na-K pump).

Food applications

Potassium is a nutrient necessary for human life and health. Potassium chloride is used as a substitute for table salt by those seeking to reduce sodium intake so as to control hypertension. Good dietary sources of potassium include celery juice. The USDA lists tomato paste, orange juice, beet greens, white beans, bananas, and many other good dietary sources of potassium, ranked according to potassium content per measure shown.
Potassium sodium tartrate, or Rochelle salt () is the main constituent of baking powder. Potassium bromate () is a strong oxidiser, used as a flour improver (E924) to improve dough strength and rise height.
The sulfite compound, Potassium bisulfite () is used as a food preservative, for example in wine and beer-making (but not in meats). It is also used to bleach textiles and straw, and in the tanning of leathers.
Non-dietary uses of potassium chloride include its use to stop the heart, e.g. in cardiac surgery and in a solution used in executions by lethal injection.

Industrial applications

Potassium vapor is used in several types of magnetometers. An alloy of sodium and potassium, NaK (usually pronounced "nack"), that is liquid at room temperature, is used as a heat-transfer medium. It can also be used as a desiccant for producing dry and air-free solvents.
Potassium metal reacts vigorously with all of the halogens to form the corresponding potassium halides, which are white, water-soluble salts with cubic crystal morphology. Potassium bromide (KBr), potassium iodide (KI) and potassium chloride (KCl) are used in photographic emulsion to make the corresponding photosensitive silver halides.
Potassium hydroxide chem KOH is a strong base, used in industry to neutralize strong and weak acids and thereby finding uses in pH control and in the manufacture of potassium salts. Potassium hydroxide is also used to saponify fats and oils and in hydrolysis reactions, for example of esters and in industrial cleaners.
Potassium nitrate or saltpeter is obtained from natural sources such as guano and evaporites or manufactured by the Haber process and is the oxidant in gunpowder (black powder) and an important agricultural fertilizer. Potassium cyanide chem KCN is used industrially to dissolve copper and precious metals particularly silver and gold by forming complexes; applications include gold mining, electroplating and electroforming of these metals. It is also used in organic synthesis to make nitriles. Potassium carbonate , also known as potash, is used in the manufacture of glass and soap and as a mild desiccant.
Potassium chromate (K2CrO4) is used in dyes and stains (bright yellowish-red colour), in explosives and fireworks, in safety matches, in the tanning of leather and in fly paper. Potassium fluorosilicate (K2SiF6) is used in specialized glasses, ceramics, and enamels. Potassium sodium tartrate, or Rochelle salt (KNaC4H4O6) is used in the silvering of mirrors.
The superoxide KO2 is used as a portable source of oxygen and as a carbon dioxide absorber. It is useful in portable respiration systems. Potassium chlorate is a strong oxidant, used in percussion caps and safety matches and in agriculture as a weedkiller. Glass may be treated with molten potassium nitrate to make toughened glass, which is much stronger than regular glass.


Potassium was discovered in 1807 by Sir Humphry Davy, who derived it from caustic potash (KOH). Before the 18th century, no distinction was made between potassium and sodium. Potassium was the first metal that was isolated by electrolysis.
Potassium was not known in Roman times, and its names are not Classical Latin but rather neo-Latin.
  • The name kalium was taken from the word "alkali", which came from Arabic al qalīy = "the calcined ashes".
  • The name potassium was made from the word "potash", which is English, and originally meant an alkali extracted in a pot from the ash of burnt wood or tree leaves.


Potassium reacts very violently with water producing hydrogen gas which then usually catches fire. Potassium is usually kept under a mineral oil such as kerosene to stop the metal reacting with water vapour present in the air. Unlike lithium and sodium, however, potassium should not be stored under oil indefinitely. If stored longer than 6 months to a year, dangerous shock-sensitive peroxides can form on the metal and under the lid of the container, which can detonate upon opening. It is recommended that potassium, rubidium or caesium not be stored for longer than three months unless stored in an inert (oxygen free) atmosphere, or under vacuum.
As potassium reacts with water to produce highly flammable hydrogen gas, a potassium fire is only exacerbated by the addition of water, and only a few dry chemicals are effective for putting out such a fire (see the precaution section in sodium).
Potassium also produces potassium hydroxide (KOH) in the reaction with water. Potassium hydroxide which is an strong alkali and so is a caustic hazard causing burns.
Due to the highly reactive nature of potassium, it should be handled with great care, with full skin and eye protection being used and preferably a explosive resistant barrier between the user and the source of the potassium.

External links

potassium in Afrikaans: Kalium
potassium in Arabic: بوتاسيوم
potassium in Asturian: Potasiu
potassium in Bengali: পটাশিয়াম
potassium in Min Nan: K (goân-sò͘)
potassium in Belarusian: Калій
potassium in Bosnian: Kalijum
potassium in Bulgarian: Калий
potassium in Catalan: Potassi
potassium in Czech: Draslík
potassium in Corsican: Potassiu
potassium in Welsh: Potasiwm
potassium in Danish: Kalium
potassium in German: Kalium
potassium in Dhivehi: ޕޮޓޭސިއަމް
potassium in Estonian: Kaalium
potassium in Modern Greek (1453-): Κάλιο
potassium in Spanish: Potasio
potassium in Esperanto: Kalio
potassium in Basque: Potasio
potassium in Persian: پتاسیم
potassium in French: Potassium
potassium in Friulian: Potassi
potassium in Irish: Potaisiam
potassium in Manx: Potashum
potassium in Galician: Potasio
potassium in Korean: 칼륨
potassium in Armenian: Կալիում
potassium in Hindi: पोटासियम
potassium in Croatian: Kalij
potassium in Ido: Kalio
potassium in Indonesian: Kalium
potassium in Icelandic: Kalín
potassium in Italian: Potassio
potassium in Hebrew: אשלגן
potassium in Javanese: Kalium
potassium in Kannada: ಪೊಟ್ಯಾಶಿಯಮ್
potassium in Swahili (macrolanguage): Kali
potassium in Haitian: Potasyòm
potassium in Kurdish: Qelye
potassium in Latin: Kalium
potassium in Latvian: Kālijs
potassium in Luxembourgish: Kalium
potassium in Lithuanian: Kalis
potassium in Lojban: sodnrkali
potassium in Hungarian: Kálium
potassium in Macedonian: Калиум
potassium in Malayalam: പൊട്ടാസ്യം
potassium in Maori: Konurehu
potassium in Malay (macrolanguage): Kalium
potassium in Dutch: Kalium
potassium in Japanese: カリウム
potassium in Norwegian: Kalium
potassium in Norwegian Nynorsk: Kalium
potassium in Novial: Kalium
potassium in Occitan (post 1500): Potassi
potassium in Uzbek: Kaliy
potassium in Low German: Kalium
potassium in Polish: Potas
potassium in Portuguese: Potássio
potassium in Romanian: Potasiu
potassium in Quechua: Kalyu
potassium in Russian: Калий
potassium in Albanian: Kaliumi
potassium in Sicilian: Putassiu
potassium in Simple English: Potassium
potassium in Slovak: Draslík
potassium in Slovenian: Kalij
potassium in Serbian: Калијум
potassium in Serbo-Croatian: Kalij
potassium in Finnish: Kalium
potassium in Swedish: Kalium
potassium in Thai: โพแทสเซียม
potassium in Vietnamese: Kali
potassium in Tajik: Калий
potassium in Turkish: Potasyum
potassium in Ukrainian: Калій
potassium in Urdu: پوٹاشیم
potassium in Walloon: Potassiom
potassium in Vlaams: Kalium
potassium in Contenese: 鉀
potassium in Chinese: 钾
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