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IYPT Elements

IYPT 2019 Elements 015: Phosphorus: The light-bearing element of matches and life

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.

Phosphorus is essential for life, and is a part of the sugar-phosphate backbone of DNA. It crops up elsewhere, too – it’s found in ATP, the molecule our bodies use for energy. It’s found in fertilisers as it’s also an essential element for plants.

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.

The element also has more nefarious uses. Organophosphate nerve agents have been in the news in recent years – in particular, the Novichok agent used in a poisoning in Salisbury, UK, last year.

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.