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Potassium

Potassium pearls under paraffin oil. The large pearl measures 0.5 cm.

Potassium is a chemical element with symbol K and atomic number 19. Elemental potassium is a soft silvery-white alkali metal that oxidizes rapidly in air and is very reactive with water, generating sufficient heat to ignite the hydrogen emitted in the reaction and burning with a lilac flame. Naturally occurring potassium is composed of three isotopes, one of which, 40K, is radioactive. Traces (0.012%) of this isotope are found in all potassium, making 40K the most common radioisotope in the human body and in many biological materials, as well as in common building substances such as concrete.

Most industrial chemical applications of potassium employ the relatively high solubility in water of potassium compounds, such as potassium soaps. Potassium metal has only a few special applications, being replaced in most chemical reactions with sodium metal.

Potassium ions are necessary for the function of all living cells. Potassium ion diffusion is a key mechanism in nerve transmission, and potassium depletion in animals, including humans, results in various cardiac dysfunctions. Potassium accumulates in plant cells, and thus fresh fruits and vegetables are a good dietary source of it. This resulted in potassium first being isolated from potash, the ashes of plants, giving the element its name. For the same reason, heavy crop production rapidly depletes soils of potassium, and agricultural fertilizers consume 95% of Union potassium production. Conversely, plants are intolerant of sodium ions and thus sodium is present in only low concentrations, except specialist halophytes.