Sodium and Potassium
Man had known sodium and potassium compounds for a very long time. Carbonates of these metals were used in Egypt for laundry. Common salt, one of the most widespread sodium compounds, was used in foods from time immemorial; in some countries it was very expensive and sometimes wars were waged for the right to possess salt mines. Sodium carbonate was usually obtained from salt lakes whereas potassium carbonate by leaching plant ash; for this reason, the former was named mineral alkali and the latter vegetable alkali. The word “alkali” was introduced by Geber, a medieval alchemist, although he made no distinction between the two carbonates. The differences in their nature were first mentioned in 1683. The Dutch scientist I. Bon noted that when soda and potash were used in the similar process. The shapes of the precipitated crystals were different depending on the initial product.
In 1702 G. Stahl noted the difference in crystals of some sodium and potassium compounds. This was an important step in distinguishing between soda and potash. In 1736 the French chemist A. de Monsean proved that soda was always present in common salt, Glauber’s salt, and in borax. Since an acidic constituent of soda was known, the nature of the basic constuent was of great interest. According to Monsean, soda formed Glauber’s salt with sulphuric acid cubic saltpeter (sodium nitrate) with nitric acid, and a variety of sea salt with hydrochloric acid: isn’t this reason enough to deduce that soda is the basis of sea salt?
Although chemists had suspected for a long time that alkali earths were oxides of metals, the nature of soda and potash had not been studied up to the early 19th century. Even Lavoisier had no definite idea on this subject. He did not know what the basic constituents of soda and potash were and assumed that nitrogen could be a constituent. This confusion seems to stem from the similarity between the properties of sodium, potassium, and ammonium salts. Credit for determining these constituents belongs to H. Davy. At first he was dogged by failures: he could not separate metals from soda and potash with the aid of a galvanic battery. However, soon the scientist understood his error–he used saturated aqueous solutions but the presence of water hinders decomposition. In October, 1807, Davy decide to melt anhydrous potash, and as soon as he started electrolysis of the alkali hydroxide melt, small balls resembling mercury with bright metallic lustre appeared on the negative electrode immersed into the melt. Some of the balls burnt up immediately with an explosion forming bright flame while the other did not burn, but just dimmed and became covered with a white film, Davy concluded that numerous experiments had shown that the balls were the substance which he had been looking for and this substance was highly inflammable potassium hydroxide.
Davy studied this metal thoroughly and found that when it reacted with water the resulting flame was due to burning of the hydrogen liberated from water. Having studied the metal obtained from potassium hydroxide, H. Davy began to search for sodium hydroxide using the same method and the succeeded in separating another alkali metal. The scientist noted that for its preparation much more powerful battery was required than in the experiments with potash. Never the less, the properties of both metals turned out to be similar. For a short time the scientist carefully studied the properties of potassium and sodium. Some chemists doubted the elemental nature of sodium and potassium believing that they were compounds of alkalis with hydrogen. However, Gay Lussac and Thenard proved convincingly that Davy had, indeed. Obtained simple substances.