From the English word, potash - pot ashes; Latin kalium, Arab qali, alkali. Discovered in 1807 by Davy, who obtained it from caustic potash (KOH); this was the first metal isolated by electrolysis.
The metal is the seventh most abundant and makes up about 2.4% by weight of the earth's crust. Most potassium minerals are insoluble and the metal is obtained from them only with great difficulty.
Certain minerals, however, such as sylvite, carnallite, langbeinite, and polyhalite are found in ancient lake and sea beds and form rather extensive deposits from which potassium and its salts can readily be obtained. Potash is mined in Germany, New Mexico, California, Utah, and elsewhere. Large deposits of potash, found at a depth of some 3000 ft in Saskatchewan, promise to be important in coming years.
Potassium is also found in the ocean, but is present only in relatively small amounts, compared to sodium.
The greatest demand for potash has been in its use for fertilizers. Potassium is an essential constituent for plant growth and is found in most soils.
An alloy of sodium and potassium (NaK) is used as a heat-transfer medium. Many potassium salts are of utmost importance, including the hydroxide, nitrate, carbonate, chloride, chlorate, bromide, iodide, cyanide, sulfate, chromate, and dichromate.
Seventeen isotopes of potassium are known. Ordinary potassium is composed of three isotopes, one of which is 40°K (0.0118%), a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 1.28 x 109 years.