What is Potassium Hydroxide? Uses & Applications and Safety Hazards

Potassium Hydroxide Overview

Potassium hydroxide is an inorganic compound commonly known as caustic potash, lye, and potash lye, and denoted with the formula KOH. It is non-combustible, highly corrosive compound that is widely used in chemical manufacturing, cleaning compounds, and petroleum refining.

Potassium hydroxide is a strong base which dissociates in aqueous solution into its ions. Although the pH of potassium hydroxide is extremely high (from 10 to 13), the exact value depends on the concentration of it in water.

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What is potassium hydroxide in chemistry?

The structure of potassium hydroxide is depicted as

K+ OH

Important chemical reaction of potassium hydroxide include:

Saponification of ester

The ester and a known amount of potassium hydroxide are heated in an organic solvent in a sealed tube; when the ester gets saponified. Potassium hydroxide serves as a source of  OH−, a highly nucleophilic anion that attacks polar bonds in both organic and inorganic chemicals.

KOH + RCOOR’ → RCOOK + R’OH

Reacts with CO2 to produce bicarbonate

Potassium hydroxide reacts with carbon dioxide to form bicarbonate. Adding hydroxide ions adjusts the pH.

KOH + CO2 → KHCO3

Potassium Hydroxide Properties

The important properties of potassium hydroxide are discussed below.

AppearanceClear solution. In solid state, it appears as white to slightly yellow lumps, flakes, pellets, or rod
OdorNo characteristics odor
Density2.044 g/cm3
Melting point360 °C
Boiling point1,327 °C
SolubilitySoluble in water, ethanol, methanol, and glycerin; but slightly soluble in ether

Uses & Applications of Potassium Hydroxide

The demand for potassium is constantly increasing as its use in various end- user industries are rising steadily. The most popular use of potassium hydroxide includes:

  • Used in manufacturing of soaps and shaving creams
  • Used popularity in fertilizers to adjust the pH of soil
  • Used to detect fungal infection on skin
  • Used in various industrial and manufacturing processes
  • Used in petroleum refining
  • It is used in the mercerization (textile finishing) process of cotton
  • It is widely used in the food industry to control the pH of the agents
  • It is used in thickening of food
  • It is used in titration in analytical chemistry experiments
  • It is used in chip fabrication for semiconductors
  • Used in manufacturing of cuticle removers which are further used in manicure treatment

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Potassium Hydroxide Health & Safety Hazards

Potassium hydroxide is a corrosive chemical and causes damage of eyes, skin, respiratory tract, and digestive tract. It should be handled with care by following all precautionary statements given in the MSDS (Meta Safety Data Sheet).

Adverse health effects of potassium hydroxide in human

  • Leads to severe skin burns and eye damage
  • Proven to be harmful when swallowed
  • Causes irritation of the mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract
  • Harmful when inhaled or absorbed by skin
  • Causes irritation of the eye, skin, or respiratory system

Potential Health Risk:

Eye: Potassium hydroxide can cause severe eye burns. It is proven to cause irreversible eye injury in extreme cases.  Direct contact of the chemical to the eyes may cause ulceration of the conjunctiva and cornea. Eye damage may be delayed.

Skin: It causes skin burns. When penetrates deep in the skin, it causes ulcers of the skin.

Ingestion: Harmful if swallowed. It may cause circulatory system failure when perforates deep into the digestive tract. It is also proven to causes severe digestive tract burns with abdominal pain, vomiting, and even death.

Inhalation: It is harmful when inhaled. It causes severe irritation of the respiratory tract, coughing, burning, breathing difficulty, and possible coma. It also leads to chemical pneumonitis and pulmonary edema.

Chronic exposure: Prolonged or repeated exposure on the skin may cause dermatitis, while such chronic exposure to eyes may cause conjunctivitis.

First-aid measures

Eye Contact: Remove contact lens, if any, and rinse immediately with plenty of cold water for at least 15 minutes and get medical help soon after.

Skin Contact: Cut off any clothes in the exposed area and wash the skin with cold, running tap water for nearly 15 minutes. Get medical help immediately.

Inhalation:  On inhalation of potassium hydroxide fumes, move to fresh air immediately. Do not use mouth-to-mouth method, instead give artificial respiration with the aid of a pocket mask equipped with a one-way valve. Get immediate medical attention is required.

Ingestion: Ingestion of potassium hydroxide can be harmful; hence, it is advised to call a physician immediately. Do not induce vomiting. Be careful while working on potassium hydroxide as it can burn the oesophagus and cause the swelling and damage of the digestive tract.

To avoid any kind of harmful effects of potassium hydroxide, use proper personal protective equipment and conduct the experiments in adequate exhaust ventilation to keep airborne concentrations within the limits. Wear safety glasses and chemical goggles or face shield, gloves and appropriate protective clothing to prevent skin exposure, and OSHA respirators if exposure limits are exceeded or if experiencing any other symptoms such as irritation, discomfort, or burning sensation.

Manufacture of Potassium Hydroxide

The global potassium hydroxide market is huge and expected to further increase in the next few years due to the wide range of applications it offers. The global market size was reported at $2599.1 million in 2019 which is estimated to reach $2868 million by the end of 2026, growing at a CAGR of 1.4%.

Key players in the global potassium hydroxide market include:

  • OxyChem
  • Evonik
  • UNID
  • Olin Chlor Alkali
  • Tessenderlo Chemie
  • Asahi Glass (AGC)
  • Ercros
  • Albemarle
  • ICL
  • ERCO Worldwide

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