On July 31, 1790, President George Washington signed the first patent ever issued in the United States. The patent was granted to Samuel Hopkins for a new process and apparatus for making potash, America's first industrial chemical. While the patent expired fourteen years later, potash remains an important product around the world today.

Key Takeaways

  • Potash is America's first industrial chemical, patented in 1790, and remains an essential product today.
  • Potash is made of potassium, which is an essential part of the human diet.
  • Nine-five percent of the world's potash is used in farming to fertilize food supply.
  • Many of the pure-play potash stocks have been acquired by larger rivals, but Mosaic Company and Ashland have substantial potash operations.

Understanding Potash

Potash is a vital resource in the world today, but not a topic that many people fully understand. Here are some facts that may help in understanding the ongoing importance of this unique product:

  1. Potash is Made of Potassium
    The element potassium is a member of the alkali metal group and is abundant in nature. It's always found in combined forms with other minerals in the earth's crust, particularly where there are large deposits of clay minerals and heavy soils.
    Potash is an impure combination of potassium carbonate and potassium salt. Rock deposits bearing potash resulted when ancient inland seas evaporated millions of years ago. The term potash has been commonly used to describe the fertilizer forms of potassium derived from these rocks by separating the salt and other minerals.
  2. It's Part of History
    In the early days, the primary source of potash was the ash from native hardwood trees. The basic chemical compound potassium carbonate was extracted by leaching the ashes in big iron pots to dissolve out the soluble components. Evaporation of the solution through percolation resulted in the production of potash. Potash was used in making fertilizer, glass, soap, gunpowder, and dyeing fabrics.
    Until the 1860s, the only sources of potash were hardwood trees and a few other plants. The U.S. dominance in potash production began to decline when natural deposits of the chemical were discovered in dry lake alkali beds in Germany. The outbreak of World War I forced other countries such as Russia and France to develop their own natural sources. Additional sources were discovered in Michigan, Utah, and New Mexico.
  3. Potash Is in Your Food
    Ninety-five percent of the world's potash is used on farms to fertilize the food supply. It's a critical ingredient that helps to improve crop yields, increase resistance to plant diseases, and heighten water retention. It also has a positive effect on food color, taste, and texture.
    Potash is a component of feed supplements used to grow livestock and enhance milk production. It still has several industrial applications that trace their roots back to the colonial days, including glass, soap, and ceramic production.
  4. You Need Potash in Your Diet
    Potassium is an important element of the human diet as it's involved in both cellular metabolism and body functions. It's essential for growth and maintenance of tissues, muscles, and organs, as well as the electrical activity of the heart.
    The average recommended intake of potassium for an adult is 4.7 grams per day but the intake level can change depending on your specific medical condition. Good sources of potassium include citrus fruits and juices, milk, chicken, red meat, fish, soy products, root vegetables, bananas, nuts, and yogurt.
    Farm soil contains more potassium than nitrogen and phosphorous, and these three nutrients are all critical to thriving plant growth. Potassium absorption is enabled by the use of soil that is enriched with potash-based fertilizers.
  5. It Moves Stock Prices
    In terms of investment opportunities, many of the pure plays on potash, such as Agrium and Potash, have been acquired by larger rivals over the years. The Mosaic Company (MOS) and Ashland (ASH), however, both have substantial potash operations. For those seeking a diversified play on Potash, the Global X Fertilizers/Potash ETF (SOIL) is an exchange traded fund that tracks the Solactive Global Fertilizers/Potash Total Return Index, which is an index consisting of companies like Scotts Miracle-Gro, Siteone, and Nutrien.

The Bottom Line

The sources for potash are finite and concentrated in Canada, Russia, and Belarus. At the same time, life can't survive without food and water, and potash is a vital part of the formula for expanding the efficient expansion of the world's food supply. In fact, there are no known substitutes for potash.