Potash mines are a common sight in Saskatchewan, and most residents are well aware that the industry commands billions of dollars on the global market and is an important component of the province’s economy. Less obvious, however, are its origins and its uses, which range from the biological to the chemical.
The term “potash” refers to not one, but several potassium compounds and potassium-bearing materials that contain water-soluble potassium. It is so named for the pre-industrial practice of using large, iron pots to collect potassium evaporated from wood ash. Eventually, the term would be applied to both naturally-occurring potassium salts and the substances produced through the industrial extraction and refinement of those salts.
Potassium is a metal, and an extremely active one at that. When ignited, it burns with a purple hue and, when introduced in its pure form into the atmosphere, it reacts violently with any oxygen and water that it encounters. Its interaction with water is particularly dramatic, creating corrosive potassium hydroxide and leaving free hydrogen atoms to react with other molecules.
Stable potassium salts were infused into the soil of this province beginning roughly 544 million years ago, between the Cambrian and Mississippian periods. During that time, a tropical, inland sea filling the area known as the Phanerozoic basin drowned much of what is now Saskatchewan, collecting the sediment that would crystallize into potash ore once the sea finally receded and dried. In the process, this potassium became naturally intermingled with sodium chloride, also known as common table salt.
In the present, potash deposits can be found in a belt running from the midwestern border of the province to the southeastern corner. The further south one surveys, the deeper the potash has been buried, since Saskatchewan emerged from beneath its primordial sea, from 1,000 metres in the north to nearly 3,000 metres in the south.
The vast majority of the potash mined in the province is used in foreign agricultural efforts. In the international potash market, China, the United States, Brazil and India are the greatest consumers. Agriculture claims at least 90 per cent of the world’s potash production, and only five per cent of Saskatchewan potash remains in the province. Potash – whether in the form of potassium carbonate, potassium chloride, potassium sulfate, potassium magnesium sulfate, langbeinite or potassium nitrate – is the third most important ingredient in crop fertilizers, behind nitrogen and phosphorus.
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