The world is full of mysterious places you can see from high above using Google Earth, but what’s really going on down there, and why? I am here in the middle of the Utah desert surrounded by sandstone cliffs and red rocks and scrub. There are electric blue ponds in the middle of the Utah desert. If anyone of you sees them on Google Earth or any in photos, you will get many questions, like
What are they? Why are they here? And why do these colors keep changing?
One person thought this might be a top-secret NASA experiment, since; after all, you can see them from space. Some people suggested, maybe they’re just really large swimming pools. It might be a kind of thermal energy thing? Like a solar thing? Like, they come up from the ground? It’s got to be some sort of, science experiment of some kind. The truth is far more fascinating than any of those guesses. These Technicolor pools are full of something that’s been prized throughout human history.
In 1807, British scientist Humphrey Davy had discovered a new element; so naturally, he named it pot-ash-ium -Potassium. Yes, that is where the name of the element comes from.
When you hear the word potassium, many people think of bananas or Gatorade, and that’s true, these foods are good sources of potassium, but it’s not pure potassium. A piece of pure elemental potassium is a metal, but we can squish it with fingers. And this had to be created in a lab because it is so reactive, it’ll react with anything.
What potassium has to do with these ponds?
The answer begins with a pot and a hardwood fire. This is a 1,500-year-old recipe. Take some hardwood and burn it, not for the heat, but for the ash. Put the ash in a pot and add water. There are a lot of different chemical compounds in there, but the one we’re after is water-soluble, so it dissolves. Strain out the solids and you’ll find the solution is slippery. Put it in a pan and let the water evaporates in the sun, and what you’re left with is a crystalline substance. It is one of the most important chemicals people have been making for centuries, and it’s called potash because that is exactly where it comes from.
The demand for potash was so high that across Europe and the eastern U.S., forests were decimated. Unfortunately, it required a huge amount of lumber to create just a small quantity of potash. Then in 1861 in Germany, found it in a rock. It was potassium chloride in its natural mineral form. The Germans cut off potash exports to the world. Their preemptive first strike was depriving the world of potassium, something countries had become dependent on to feed their growing populations. The U.S. became so desperate for other sources of potassium that in 1911, Congress appropriated money to find domestic sources. Sites discovered near Searle’s Lake, California, Carlsbad, New Mexico, Moab, Utah, became potash pay dirt.
But the potash rocks weren’t on the surface. They were deep underground. The layer that the potash is found in is called the Paradox Formation, and it was created by an inland ocean that kept retreating, returning, retreating, and returning. The water would evaporate and leave behind salt and other evaporates like potash. So potash had to be mined out.
Mining is one of the most dangerous professions, so if you don’t have to go down in a mine, it’s better not to. After a fatal explosion in 1963, caused by a little spark in a mine filled with methane and natural gas, a mining company based in Saskatchewan, Canada, stumbled upon a safer way to mine potash.
They pump water from the Colorado River deep underground. It goes down 3,900 feet. That is where the potash deposits are. That water dissolves the potash salt, so we get a briny solution down here. Then they get forced back up to the surface, where that brine solution is pumped into these ponds. Here, the water evaporates into the air, leaving you with that potash that you wanted to get.
They’re evaporating the water off to get to that salt, to get to the potash which is in the water. And it just looks so beautiful from up in the air. There are 23 ponds spread over 400 acres, and it takes months for each one to evaporate. There are 2 billion tons of potash in the Paradox Basin alone, and at an average price of $330 a metric ton, the potash harvested here could potentially generate billions of dollars.
The color of these ponds changes over time. A full, fresh pond is a deep blue color, but over time, as that water evaporates and it gets shallower, we see seafoam green ponds, and further, along the line, you get these sorts of tan-colored ponds. Ultimately, when all the water is gone, you are left with this white crystalline substance. That is the potash, and they scrape it up with these vehicles.
But if the potash crystals are white, then
Why do these ponds appear so blue?
The answer is in there. It is copper sulfate. The copper sulfate is in the water because it prevents the growth of algae and other living organisms. Plus it’s this dark blue color, which absorbs more sunlight, more energy from the sun, and that helps the water evaporate faster.