Phosphorus is used in the red advice of simple kitchen matches.(Image credit: suvijakra | Shutterstock)


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Phosphorus, the 15th facet on the periodic table, was very first distilled by one alchemist in search of gold — searching, the is, in at least 60 buckets the urine. 


Hennig Brand, a German, discovered phosphorus rather by accident in 1669 while processing urine in search of a link that would turn plain metals into gold. Follow to the Jefferson National straight Accelerator Laboratory, over there would have actually been an less complicated way: Phosphorus is now largely isolated native the absent phosphate.

There"s even a 1795 painting dedicated to phosphorus" discovery, title "The Alchymist, trying to find the Philosopher"s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays because that the successful Conclusion that his operation, together was the practice of the old Chymical Astrologers." (The Philosopher"s rock is the mythical substance said to turn metals into gold.) 

The painter, Joseph Wright, left out few of the details, as videotaped in the 1796 document "Phosphoros Elementals" and re-described in the 2006 textbook "Chemistry" by Kenneth Whitten and colleagues. The very first step in the process was come steep the to pee for two weeks, till it putrefied and bred worms.


just the facts

According to the Jefferson Lab, the properties of phosphorus are:


Atomic number (number of protons in the nucleus): 15Atomic symbol (on the routine Table the Elements): PAtomic weight (average fixed of the atom): 30.973762Density: 1.82 grams per cubic centimeterPhase at room temperature: SolidMelting point: 111.57 degrees Fahrenheit (44.15 levels Celsius)Boiling point: 536.9 F (280.5 C)Number of isotope (atoms of the same facet with a different variety of neutrons): 22; 1 stableMost common isotopes: Phosphorus-31 (100 percent herbal abundance)


(Image credit: Greg Robson/Creative Commons, Andrei Marincas Shutterstock)

element of light

The human being phosphorus comes from a Greek word an interpretation "bearer of light," and this facet delivers on the promise. The most usual forms room white phosphorus, consisted of of phosphorus atom arranged prefer a tetrahedron (a four-sided pyramid), and red phosphorus, a solid however non-crystalline kind of the element. Less common is black phosphorus, i beg your pardon is make of atom arranged in a ring structure and looks a bit like the graphite at the suggest of a pencil. 

White phosphorus is waxy and gives off a slim glow in air, according to the Royal culture of Chemistry. It"s likewise capable of self-igniting in air when the temperature reaches around 86 F (30 C); the only safe warehouse is under water. As a result, white phosphorus is supplied in fireworks and also weaponry. According to the Centers for condition Control and Prevention (CDC), it smells like matches or garlic. Inhalation or contact with the skin is toxic, leading to burns the can conveniently turn fatal. 

Red phosphorus is far an ext stable in ~ room temperature — in fact, it"s found on the side of any box of security matches. The friction the the match against the red phosphorous transforms a little bit of the red phosphorus right into white phosphorus, providing the ignition needed to irradiate the match, according to Michigan State University"s science Theater. Red phosphorus is make by heating white phosphorus under regulated conditions. 


In certain combinations, though, red phosphorus is still really dangerous. When exposed to sufficient heat (500 F or 260 C), it will certainly ignite. The explodes when an unified with other compounds such as chlorine, sodium and ammonium nitrate, according to California"s Office of ecological Health peril Assessment, i beg your pardon flags red phosphorus as among the attention ingredients offered in do methamphetamines. 

The non-illicit uses of phosphorus incorporate steel-making and the production of flares. The most usual use, however, is in fertilizers, follow to the RSC. Regardless of its fiery properties, phosphorus is crucial come life. Together phosphate, a fee molecule, that combines v sugar to kind the backbone of DNA. It"s also component of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, the molecule that stores and also releases energy to permit cells to function. 

that knew?

There are about 26.5 ounces (750 grams) of phosphate in the average human being body, mainly in the bones, according to the RSC.Strike-anywhere matches have the right to ignite on any type of surface because they contain a small amount of white phosphorus built in come the enhance head. 

current research

Human phosphorus usage has developed problems for wildlife and also people, alike. In respectable 2014, the city the Toledo, Ohio, had actually to warn citizens versus using the city"s water because of a toxic birds bloom. Together blooms, which happen in other drinking-water lakes across the country as well, are regularly caused or exacerbated by phosphorus indigenous fertilizers and also livestock waste flowing into waterways. 

In numerous streams and also lakes, "phosphorus is the nutrient that is the many scarce, and also therefore that is regularly the most necessary nutrient," stated Dan Obenour, a professor that civil, construction and also environmental design at phibìc Carolina State University. 

Obenour and his colleagues have actually studied the birds blooms that Lake Erie, which is where Toledo gets its drink water. The dominant resource of phosphorus running right into the lake is from farming fertilizers, Obenour said Live Science, despite lawn fertilizers, pet waste and also even cure wastewater contribute. 

Other factors, such as water temperature, deserve to influence the timing and also size that toxic birds blooms, so Obenour and also his colleagues wanted to isolation the results of fertilizer runoff. Lock used computer system models come relate the amount of phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie to the dimension of the late-summer algae blooms in the lake. 

The results, released in October 2014 in the journal Water resources Research, confirmed a link: The much more phosphorus at an early stage in the year, the bigger the birds bloom in late summer. What"s more, Obenour said, "the lake is becoming more sensitive come cyanobacteria blooms." 

In various other words, much less phosphorus is necessary to produce ever-larger blooms — a fact that can influence regulation on agriculture upstream native the lake. The factor for the enhanced sensitivity stays somewhat mysterious, but invasive varieties could it is in one factor, Obenour said. Invasive zebra and quagga mussels feed on non-toxic birds that compete with the toxin-generating cyanobacteria. Thus, when a rush of phosphorus beginning the lake, toxic birds have small competition in gobbling it up. The birds blooms would most likely be a quarter or less the size of the top blooms watched in Lake Erie in 2011 without human influence, Obenour said. 

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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science. She consists the human being of human and also animal behavior, and also paleontology and also other scientific research topics. Stephanie has actually a Bachelor of arts in psychology from the university of south Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the college of California, Santa Cruz. She has ducked under a glacier in Switzerland and poked hot lava v a stick in Hawaii. Stephanie hails from east Tennessee, the worldwide center because that salamander diversity. Monitor Stephanie top top Google+.