Potash – The Essential Element

Potash is the general term for potassium bearing minerals. It was named after the extraction process used in the pre-industrial era when wood ashes were immersed in water and leaching took effect. When the solution evaporated a sediment of potassium carbonate was left behind on the inside of the large iron pots.  Potassium is a highly reactive alkaline metal and is not found in isolation in nature. It readily forms compounds in the form of chlorides, nitrates, carbonates, bromides, cyanide, sulphates and hydroxides. Known by its chemical name K, potassium is an essential element to both plant and human life.

Potash is the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust. The world’s leading producers are Canada, Russia and Belarus. Current extraction levels are in the region of 35 million tonnes per year and demand is growing. Most potash is extracted from underground salt deposits. As the world population continues to grow, pressure is being placed upon primary producers to maximise crop yields. But in turn, intensive farming methods can rob the soil of potassium which must then be replenished to sustain levels of production. Potassium is essential for all animal and plant life in order to thrive and survive.  Perhaps no surprise then, that the dominant use for potash is for fertilizer. But compounds of potassium have many applications.

Let’s look at the leading uses for potash:

  • Leading by a country mile – The primary use for potash around the globe is for fertilizer. Potassium is needed by plants to take up water, synthesize sugars for growth, and enable disease resistance. Potash fertilizer also improves plant formulation, taste of end product and boosts flower quality. Another vital role in agriculture is in animal feed supplements. Potassium is crucial in the diet of dairy cows and supplementation can significantly improve milk production.
  • You are what you eat – potassium carbonate is regularly used in food production, particularly as a leavening agent in baking. Another commonly used compound, potassium metabisulphite is used by the brewing and winemaking industries. It works as an antioxidant and limits the growth of wild yeasts and bacteria in your favourite drink.  Cheers!
  • Getting into a lather – potassium hydroxide is used in soap making. It has greater solubility that of sodium soaps.  This means the soap needs less water to liquify. It is also used to make detergents and dyes.
  • Kill or cure there are many pharmaceutical applications for potassium in health care. It is an essential element to life where both deficiency and excess can be fatal. Our potassium requirements are usually met easily through our diet so supplementation is rarely needed. Exceptions include certain health condition or taking medications that rob your body of potassium. More common uses include saline drips and potassium permanganate for the treatment of various skin conditions.
  • Softly softly – potassium chloride can be used in the treatment of water. Some people enjoy softened water in their homes for better bubbles in the bath but soft water is also a significant requirement in an industrial setting. Many manufacturing processes utilize large volumes of water, which if left untreated leave damaging sediments in pipelines and equipment. Potassium chloride is considered an environmentally friendly option as the residue from the process is taken up by plant life.

For generations, potash has been recognised as pivotal for growth and sustaining life. But as the world faces increasing pressure to utilise land more efficiently for optimal food production, potash is a commodity that is very much back in the spotlight.