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Materials

2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the importance of potassium in human health.

Why is potassium biologically important?

Potassium plays an essential role to health, being the third most important mineral in the body. The human body requires at least 1000mg of potassium a day in order to support key bodily processes. 

Potassium regulates fluid balance in the body, controls the electrical activity of the heart, muscles, and helps in activating nerve impulses throughout the nervous system. 

According to an article from Medical News Today Knowledge Center, the possible health benefits to a regular diet intake of potassium include maintaining the balance of acids and bases in the body, supporting blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health, and helping with bone and muscle strength.

These powerful health benefits are linked to a potassium rich diet. Potassium is present in all fruits, vegetables, meat and fish.

 Receptors on a cell membrane

Receptors on a cell membrane.


Can it go wrong?

The body maintains the potassium level in the blood. If the potassium level is too high in the body (hyperkalemia) or if it is too low (hypokalemia) then this can cause serious health consequences, including an abnormal heart rhythm or even a cardiac arrest. 

Fortunately, cells in the body store a large reservoir of potassium which can be released to maintain a constant level of potassium in blood.

What is hyperkalemia? Video: Osmosis

Potassium deficiency leads to fatigue, weakness and constipation. Within muscle cells, potassium would normally send signals from the brain that stimulate contractions. However, if potassium levels steep too low, the brain is not able to relay these signals from the brain to the muscles, the results end in more prolonged contractions which includes muscle cramping.

As potassium is an essential mineral carrying out wide ranging roles in the body, the low intakes can lead to an increase in illness. The FDA has made a health claim, stating that ‘diets containing foods that are a good source of potassium and that are low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.’

Originally posted by stydiamccall

This suggests that consuming more potassium might reduce the risks of high blood pressure and the possibility of strokes. However, more research on dietary and supplemental potassium is required before drawing towards a set conclusion.


Materials

2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is an element which gives us life, oxygen.


Physical Properties

Oxygen is a group 5 gas that is found abundantly in nature. Of the air we breathe, 20.8% is oxygen in its elemental, diatomic form of O2. Oxygen is also one of the most abundant elements in nature, and along with carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, makes up the structures of most of the natural world. Oxygen can be found in DNA, sugar, hormones, proteins and so many more natural structures.

Although oxygen mainly exists as a colourless gas, at -183°C it can be condensed as a pale blue liquid. Oxygen may seem unsuspecting, but it is highly reactive and highly oxidising. A common example of this reactivity is how oxygen reacts with iron to produce iron oxide, which appears as rust.

Elements: Oxygen, with Dr Andrea Sella. Source: Wellcome Collection

Oxygen molecules are paramagnetic – they exhibit magnetic characteristics when in the presence of a magnetic field. Liquid oxygen is so magnetic that the effect can be seen by suspending it between the poles of a powerful magnet.

Oxygen gas has applications for medicine and space travel in breathing apparatus.


Ozone

Oxygen can be found as ozone or O3. Ozone is a pale blue gas and has a distinctive smell. It is not as stable as diatomic oxygen (dioxygen) and is formed when ultraviolet light (UV) and electrical charges interact with O2.

The highest concentration of ozone can be found in the Earth’s stratosphere, which absorbs the Sun’s UV radiation, providing natural protection for planet Earth.

 ozone layer

Ozone (O3) is most concentrated in the stratosphere. Image: Pixabay

Ozone can be used industrially as a powerful oxidising agent. Unfortunately, it can be a dangerous respiratory hazard and pollutant so much be used with care.


Water

Water consists of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Though this may seem remarkably unassuming, this combination gives water unique properties that are crucial to it’s functions in the natural world.

water stream

Originally posted by wiccangoddes

Water can form hydrogen bonds between the slightly positive hydrogen and the slightly negative oxygen. These hydrogen bonds, along with waters other practical properties, make water useful in nature.

Without the hydrogen bonding found in water, plants could not transpire – transport water through their phloem’s against gravity. The surface tension of water provides stability for many natural structures.

 lilypad

Oxygen plays a key role in nature, including in water molecules. Image: Pixabay

Oxygen plays a key role in nature, from the ozone layer that encapsulates our planet, to our DNA. It’s combination with hydrogen in water makes a molecule which is integral to the natural world, and both water and oxygen itself are pivotal to our existence the planet.