Phosphorus - Element information, properties and uses (2024)

Transcript :

Chemistry in its element: phosphorus


You're listening to Chemistry in its element brought to you by Chemistry World, the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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Chris Smith

Hello - this week fertilisers, fire bombs, phossy jaw and food additives. What's the connection? Here's Nina Notman.

Nina Notman

Phosphorus is a non-metal that sits just below nitrogen in group 15 of the periodic table. This element exists in several forms, of which white and red are the best known.

White phosphorus is definitely the more exciting of the two. As it glows in the dark, is dangerously flammable in the air above 30 degrees, and is a deadly poison. Red phosphorus however has none of these fascinating properties.

So where did it all begin? Phosphorus was first made by Hennig Brandt in Hamburg in Germany in 1669. When he evaporated urine and heated the residue until it was red hot. Glowing phosphorus vapour came off and he condensed it under water. And for more than 100 years most phosphorus was made this way. This was until people realised that bone was a great source of phosphorus. Bone can be dissolved in sulfuric acid to form phosphoric acid, which is then heated with charcoal to form white phosphorus.

White phosphorus has found a range of rather nasty applications in warfare. It was used in the 20th century in tracer bullets, fire bombs, and smoke grenades. The scattering of phosphorus fire bombs over cities in World War II caused widespread death and destruction. In July 1943, Hamburg was subject to several air raids in which 25,000 phosphorus bombs were dropped over vast areas of the city. This is rather ironically considering where phosphorus was first made.

Another group of warfare agents based on phosphorus are nerve gases such as sarin. Sarin is a fluorinated phosphonate that was used by Iraq against Iran in the early to mid-1980s. And was also released in a Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people and harming nearly a thousand others.

White phosphorus has also found a wide range of other uses. One of these was in phosphorus matches that were first sold in Stockton-on-Tees in the UK in 1827. This created a whole new industry of cheap lights - but at a terrible cost. Breathing in phosphorus vapour led to the industrial disease phossy jaw, which slowly ate away the jaw bone. This condition particularly afflicted the girls who made phosphorus matches. So these were eventually banned in the early 1900s and were replaced by modern matches which use either phosphorus sulfide or red phosphorus.

As well as in matches, today phosphorus has found other uses in lighting. Magnesium phosphide is the basis of self-igniting warning flares used at sea. When it reacts with water it forms the spontaneously flammable gas, diphosphine which triggers the lighting of the flare.

Super pure phosphorus is also used to make light emitting diodes. These LEDs contain metal phosphides such as those of gallium and indium.

In the natural world the elemental form of phosphorus is never encountered. It is only seen as phosphate, and phosphate is essential to life for numerous reasons. It is part of DNA, and also constitutes a huge proportion of teeth enamel and bones in the form of calcium phosphate. Organophosphates are also important, such as the energy molecule ATP and the phospholipids of cell membranes.

A normal diet provides our bodies with the phosphate it needs. With tuna, chicken, eggs and cheese having lots. And even cola provide us with some, in the form of phosphoric acid.

Today most of our phosphorus comes from phosphate rock that is mined around the world, and then converted to phosphoric acid. Fifty million tonnes are made every year and it has multiple uses. It is used to make fertilisers, animal feeds, rust removers, corrosion preventers, and even dishwasher tablets.

Some phosphate rock is also heated with co*ke and sand in an electric furnace to form white phosphorus which is then converted to phosphorus trichloride and phosphorous acid. And it is from these that flame retardants, insecticides, and weed-killers are made. A little is also turned into phosphorus sulfides which are used as oil additives to reduce engine wear.

Phosphate is also environmentally important. It naturally moves from soil, to rivers, to oceans, to bottom sediment. Here it accumulates until it is moved by geological uplift to dry land so the circle can start again. During its journey, phosphate passes through many plants, microbes, and animals of various eco-systems.

Too much phosphate however can be damaging to natural waters because it encourages unwanted species like algae to flourish. These then crowd out other forms of desired life. There is now a legal requirement to remove phosphate from wastewaters in many parts of the world, and in the future this could be recycled as a sustainable resource so that one day the phosphate we flush down sinks and toilets might reappear in our homes in other guises such as in dishwasher tablets and maybe even in our food and colas.

Chris Smith

Nina Notman with the tale of Phosphorus, the element extracted from the golden stream, otherwise known as urine. Next time Andrea Sella will be joining us with the explosive story of element number 53.

Andrea Sella

In 1811 a young French chemist, Bernard Courtois, working in Paris stumbled across a new element. His family's firm produced the saltpetre needed to make gunpowder for Napoleon's wars. They used wood ash in their process and wartime shortages of wood forced them instead to burn seaweed. Adding concentrated sulphuric acid to the ash, Courtois, obtained an astonishing purple vapour that crystallized onto the sides of the container. Astonished by this discovery he bottled up the greyish crystals and sent them to one of the foremost chemists of his day Joseph Guy-Lussac who confirmed that this was a new element and named it iode - iodine - after the Greek word for purple.

Chris Smith

And you can hear more about how Iodine exploded onto the world's stage on next week's Chemistry in its Element, I hope you can join us. I'm Chris Smith, thank you for listening and goodbye.


Chemistry in its element is brought to you by the Royal Society of Chemistry and produced There's more information and other episodes of Chemistry in its element on our website

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    - Element information, properties and uses (2024)


What are the uses and properties of phosphorus? ›

The main function of phosphorus is in the formation of bones and teeth. Phosphorus can also be found in a variety of products such as baking powder, fertilisers, and fireworks. It also plays an important role in the production of steel. Phosphates are also used in the production of fine chinaware and special glasses.

What are 5 interesting facts about phosphorus? ›

Key Takeaways:
  • 01Phosphorus is a vital element for life.
  • 02Phosphorus is highly reactive.
  • 03Phosphorus has a fascinating history.
  • 04Phosphorus is essential for agriculture.
  • 05Phosphorus has several allotropes.
  • 06Phosphorus is used in matches.
  • 07Phosphorus is crucial for the steel industry.
Jun 1, 2024

What are the properties of phosphate? ›

Properties of Phosphate

It is present in solid form, in rocks, teeth, and bones, in soil. It has a boiling point of 553K and the melting point is 373.1K. Phosphate is required for the human body, 800mg/day is a basic requirement. Excess intake of phosphate is harmful leading to serious kidney problems and osteoporosis.

Is phosphorus the most important element? ›

Phosphorus is essential for life and has no substitute. Phosphate rock is a finite resource that was formed from the mineralization of dead sea creatures over tens of millions of years and then lifted to the land via tectonic uplift. It is one of the three key ingredients in fertilizer.

What are 5 phosphorus functions? ›

Many proteins and sugars in the body are phosphorylated. In addition, phosphorus plays key roles in regulation of gene transcription, activation of enzymes, maintenance of normal pH in extracellular fluid, and intracellular energy storage. In humans, phosphorus makes up about 1% to 1.4% of fat-free mass.

What is phosphate used for? ›

Phosphate rock is processed to produce phosphorous, which is one of the three main nutrients most commonly used in fertilizers (the other two are nitrogen and potassium). Phosphate can also be turned into phosphoric acid, which is used in everything from food and cosmetics to animal feed and electronics.

What is the main purpose of phosphorus? ›

About 85% of the body's phosphorus is in bones and teeth. Phosphorous is also present in smaller amounts in cells and tissues throughout the body. Phosphorus helps filter out waste in the kidneys and plays an essential role in how the body stores and uses energy. It also helps reduce muscle pain after a workout.

What are 3 benefits of phosphorus? ›

The main function of phosphorus is in the formation of bones and teeth. It plays an important role in how the body uses carbohydrates and fats. It is also needed for the body to make protein for the growth, maintenance, and repair of cells and tissues.

What was phosphorus first used for? ›

Phosphorus was first used medically around 1710. Johann Lincke, a German apothecary, sold pills, allegedly containing 200 mg of yellow phosphorus protected from the atmosphere by a surface layer of gold or silver, for treating 'colic, asthmatic fevers, tetanus, apoplexy and gout.

What is special about phosphate? ›

Phosphates are found in all living things — your body could get very little done without them. Phosphates are the workhorses that build molecules like DNA, transfer energy and transport molecules in and out of cells, and activate and inactivate proteins.

What are two properties of red phosphorus? ›

It is odorless as well as non-poisonous. It is insoluble in water H 2 O /Carbon disulfide . Red phosphorus does not glow in dark.

What are the properties of phosphorus Wikipedia? ›

Boiling pointwhite: 553.7 K ​(280.5 °C, ​536.9 °F)
Sublimation pointred: ≈689.2–863 K ​(≈416–590 °C, ​≈780.8–1094 °F) violet: 893 K (620 °C, 1148 °F)
Density (near r.t.)white: 1.823 g/cm3 red: ≈2.2–2.34 g/cm3 violet: 2.36 g/cm3 black: 2.69 g/cm3
Heat of fusionwhite: 0.66 kJ/mol
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What are 10 uses of phosphorus? ›

The primary use of phosphorus is for fertilizer production. The element is also used in flares, safety matches, light-emitting diodes, and steel production. Phosphates are used in some detergents. Red phosphorus is also one of the chemicals used in illegal production of methamphetamines.

What is an interesting fact about phosphorus? ›

Phosphorus is a mineral found in every cell of the body, usually in the form of phosphate. It is the second most abundant mineral in the body after calcium. About 85% of phosphorus is stored in the bones and teeth. It is important for forming bones and teeth, as well as repairing bones.

Why should we avoid phosphorus? ›

Extra phosphorus causes body changes that pull calcium out of your bones, making them weak. High phosphorus and calcium levels also lead to dangerous calcium deposits in blood vessels, lungs, eyes, and heart. Over time this can lead to increased risk of heart attack, stroke or death.

What are 3 uses of phosphorus in plants? ›

Functions of Phosphorus in Plants

Phosphorus promotes early root growth, winter hardiness, and seed formation, stimulates tillering, and increases water use efficiency.

What are the three uses of phosphorus in organisms? ›

Phosphorous is used in ATP to transport energy, in bones to provide rigidity, in DNA as the supportive backbone and in the cell membranes to control diffusion.

What are the old uses of phosphorus? ›

Phosphorus was first used medically around 1710. Johann Lincke, a German apothecary, sold pills, allegedly containing 200 mg of yellow phosphorus protected from the atmosphere by a surface layer of gold or silver, for treating 'colic, asthmatic fevers, tetanus, apoplexy and gout.

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