The latest element in our International Year of the Periodic Table series is phosphorus – essential for life, found in several forms, and the element that helps safety matches light when you strike them.
Though phosphorus’s reactivity means it’s never found uncombined in nature, it can be isolated. It comes in two main forms, white and red phosphorus. When first isolated, the glow of white phosphorus lent it its name, which means ‘light-bearer’. Phosphorus was famously isolated in this form by Hennig Brand, who did so by distilling urine.
Red phosphorus, meanwhile, has a common everyday use: it’s found on the side of safety match boxes. When struck, a small amount of white phosphorus is produced, and the match ignites.
Remember, you can keep track of all of the previous entries in this series on the site here, or on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s dedicated page.