What’s Phosphorus?

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Phosphorus is a highly reactive and toxic element that is also an important trace mineral in living organisms. It has numerous uses, including in fertilizers, matches, and electronics. It was discovered in the late 1660s and has three allotropes: white, red, and black. Phosphorus is also used in incendiary devices, fireworks, and as a dopant in electronic components.

Phosphorus is a chemical element of the nitrogen group identified by the symbol P on the periodic table of elements. The nonmetallic element is extremely reactive and also highly toxic, although it is also an important trace mineral in most living organisms. There are numerous uses for compounds of phosphorus, and most people interact with some form of the element every day. When someone lights a match, fertilizes the garden, or uses most electronics, this element is involved.

The discovery of phosphorus is attributed to Hennig Brandt, an alchemist who successfully isolated it from urine in the late 1660s. Brandt noted that his discovery possessed the curious property of glowing when exposed to air, and he named it after the Greek phosphorus, meaning “evening star”. Phosphorus’ atomic number is 15, placing it among the lightest chemical elements, and is rarely found in pure form.

Like other elements of the nitrogen group, a peculiarity of the structure of phosphorus causes it to establish very strong bonds with other elements. Besides making the element highly reactive, this also ensures that it appears in numerous compounds. One of the most important groups of phosphorus compounds are phosphates. There are numerous examples of phosphates; most people are probably familiar with calcium phosphate, the mineral that makes up most of bone structure.

Along with many other elements, phosphorus exhibits allotropy, meaning that its pure form can appear in different ways in the same state. Carbon is another such element, appearing in the radically different but still pure forms of diamond and coal. Phosphorus has three allotropes; white, red and black. White is the most toxic and reactive of the three, appearing as a waxy solid that varies in color from white to yellow.

When exposed to air, the white phosphorus will begin to burn and the item will also glow in the dark. Exposure to heat or light will turn it into red phosphorus, a much more stable allotrope that is used to make things like matches. If white phosphorus is heated under pressure, it turns into black phosphorus. All of these forms are pure, but they look and behave very differently.

In addition to matches, phosphorus is also used in incendiary devices, fertilizers and fireworks. Some products may have a phosphorus anti-corrosion coating and the element is also used as a dopant in the manufacture of electronic components. Because the element is toxic, pure forms should be handled with care, as should many of its compounds.

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