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P, A. Jonathan Buhalis
by Jonathan Buhalis


Plants need the element phosphorus. Phosphorus was discovered around 1675 by German alchemist Hennig Brandt. He distilled a white glowing solid out of urine, and was thus the first to demonstrate that the chemicals of life contain phosphorus.

Brandt's glowing substance was amazing. He kept the secret of its manufacture for a while. The German chemist Johann Kunckel, though, managed to make an inferior version of this glowing thing. Eventually, Brandt sold the secret, which gradually spread. The famous British chemist Robert Boyle is also believed to have discovered the formula.

Not until the next century did chemists fully develop the concept of an "element". Phosphorus may be the first element that has an actual, known discoverer. The elements of antiquity, such as iron and sulfur, were probably discovered many times in different places. Elements discovered by medieval alchemists, such as arsenic and bismuth were gradually recognized for what they were. But, Brandt's name is recorded in history.

Phosphorus is a nonmetal. It has several forms, like carbon. White phosphorus is quite reactive, particularly with oxygen. It is famous for burning spontaneously in air. White phosphorus will reduce many ores to the metal. White phosphorus is the active ingredient in incendiary grenades and bombs (WP or "Willy-Pete"). Its structure consists of many P4 molecules like little pyramids.

Red phosphorus consists of chains of phosphorus atoms. It is less reactive and less dangerous than the white form. Red phosphorus is used in matches, either in the head or the striking strip. For this purpose, it replaces the original choice of white.

Black phosphorus is a slippery substance like graphite, which like graphite consists of plates that slide against each other. Black phosphorus can be formed under high pressure. It is much more stable and less reactive than other forms.

Minerals containing usable phosphorus are called phosphates. Such rocks are mined in China, the United States (particularly Florida), and the western Sahara desert (particularlyl Morocco). Ninety percent of phosphate rocks go to making fertilizer. The rocks are crushed and dissolved in acid to produce phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid is combined with ammonia (ammonia contains nitrogen) to make the common fertilizer diammonium phosphate.

Phosphates are also used in animal feed supplements. Phosphorus and phosphates are used in industry to manufacture, for example, detergents and soft drinks.

Algae bloom in an Iowa pond, courtesy NRCS, A. Jonathan Buhalis

Runoff from farmlands that have been excessively fertilized is a pollution problem. Unwanted phosphates in waterways stimulate organism growth there, just as on land. The result is large blooms of algae that consume the available oxygen, and hence, dead fish.
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Content by Jonathan Buhalis