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What is Potassium Cyanide?
Potassium cyanide has the formula KCN. A colorless crystalline salt with a similar appearance to sugar, it is highly soluble in water. KCN is mostly used in gold mining, organic synthesis, and electroplating. Jewelry for chemical gilding and buffing are smaller applications.
Cyanide is a highly toxic chemical. Due to hydrolysis, the moist solid emits small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, which smells like bitter almonds. The ability to smell this is a genetic trait, however, so not everyone has it.
Potassium Cyanide is described as having an acrid taste and a burning sensation.
In order to produce Potassium Cyanide Powder, hydrogen cyanide is treated with aqueous potassium hydroxide solution, followed by evaporation in a vacuum:
Until the invention of the Castner process in 1900, potassium cyanide was the main source of alkali metal cyanides. This historical process produced potassium cyanide by decomposing potassium ferrocyanide
Potassium Cyanide Applications
Potassium Cyanide and sodium cyanide (NaCN) are widely used in organic synthesis for the preparation of nitriles and carboxylic acids, particularly in the von Richter reaction. It also finds use for the synthesis of hydantoins, which can be useful synthetic intermediates, when reacted with a carbonyl compound such as an aldehyde or ketone in the presence of ammonium carbonate.
Potassium Cyanide is used as a photographic fixer in the wet plate collodion process. The KCN dissolves silver where it has not been made insoluble by the developer. This reveals and stabilizes the image, making it no longer sensitive to light. Modern wet plate photographers may prefer less toxic fixers, often opting for the less toxic Sodium thiosulphate, but KCN is still used. Also used as snake repellent by Koreans.
Potassium Cyanide Toxicity
Potassium cyanide is a potent inhibitor of cellular respiration, acting on mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase, hence blocking oxidative phosphorylation. This prevents the body from oxidizing food to produce useful energy. Lactic acidosis then occurs as a consequence of anaerobic metabolism. Initially, acute cyanide poisoning causes a red or ruddy complexion in the victim because the tissues are not able to use the oxygen in the blood. The effects of potassium and sodium cyanide are identical, and symptoms of poisoning typically occur within a few minutes of ingesting the substance: the person loses consciousness, and brain death eventually follows. During this period the victim may suffer convulsions. Death is caused by cerebral hypoxia.
The lethal dose(human) for potassium cyanide is 20–30 mg/kg. Its toxicity when ingested depends on the acidity of the stomach, because it must react with an acid to become hydrogen cyanide, the deadly form of cyanide. Grigori Rasputin may have survived a potassium cyanide poisoning because his stomach acidity was unusually low.
A number of prominent persons were killed or committed suicide using potassium cyanide, including members of the Young Bosnia and famous personalities in the Third Reich, such as Erwin Rommel, Hitler’s longtime companion Eva Braun, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Hermann Göring. World War II era British agents (using purpose-made suicide pills), computer scientist Alan Turing, polymer chemist Wallace Carothers, 19th-Century German chemist Viktor Meyer, and various religious cult suicides such as by the Peoples Temple, Danish writer Gustav Wied in 1914, and members of the LTTE involved in the assassination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Jason Altom, who was a promising graduate student in the lab of Nobel-Prizewinning chemist EJ Corey at Harvard. Slobodan Praljak, a Wartime general in Republic of Croatia, committed suicide by drinking from a vial containing potassium cyanide during the reading of his sentence in The Hague on International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on 29th November 2017.
It is used by professional entomologists as a killing agent in collecting jars, as insects succumb within seconds to the HCN fumes it emits, thereby minimizing damage to even highly fragile specimens.
KCN can be detoxified most efficiently with hydrogen peroxide or with a solution of sodium hypochlorite. Such solutions should be kept basic whenever possible so as to eliminate the possibility of generation of hydrogen cyanide.