Phosphorus is a chemical element with the atomic number 15 in the periodic table. It is the eleventh most abundant element in Earth’s crust, with an occurrence of about 0.1% ppm. Due to its high reactivity, phosphorus does not occur freely in nature. Being a member of the nitrogen family of periodic table elements, this monoisotopic element has five valence electrons and glows with bright light in the dark.
The biological significance of this pnictogen element is immeasurable since phosphorus is in the cells and tissues of all living forms on Earth. Namely, phosphorus is an essential mineral required for proper skeletal and nervous system formation, as well as the formation of plants and animals’ cytoplasm.
Chemical and Physical Properties of Phosphorus
|The symbol in the periodic table of elements||P|
|Atomic weight (mass)||30.9738 g.mol-1|
|Group number||15 (Pnictogen; nonmetal)|
|Color||White, yellow, red, violet, or black (depending on the allotrope)|
|Physical state||Solid at room temperature|
|Half-life||From less than 30 nanoseconds to 25.34 days|
|Electronegativity according to Pauling||2.19|
|Density||1.823 g.cm-3 at 20°C|
|Melting point||44.15°C, 111.47°F, 317.3 K|
|Boiling point||280.5°C, 536.9°F, 553.7 K|
|Van der Waals radius||1.04 Å|
|Ionic radius||0.34 Å|
|Most characteristic isotope||31P|
|The energy of the first ionization||10.118 eV|
|The energy of the second ionization||19.725 eV|
|The energy of the third ionization||29.141 eV|
|Discovery date||In 1669 by Hennig Brand|
With the periodic table symbol P, atomic number 15, atomic mass of X g.mol-1, and electron configuration X, phosphorus is a nonmetal substance with 3 main allotropes – black, red, and white. It reaches its boiling point at X, while the melting point is achieved at 44.15°C, 111.47°F, 317.3 K. Phosphorus has an electronegativity of 280.5°C, 536.9°F, 553.7 K according to Pauling, whereas the atomic radius according to van der Waals is 1,04 Å.
The pure, elemental phosphorus exists in two major forms, white phosphorus, and red phosphorus. The black phosphorus is a less pure variant of element 15. In addition, this chemical element occurs in a form of phosphates, organophosphates, or mineral forms.
This soft, nonmetal substance possesses some strong toxic and explosive properties. While white phosphorus is highly reactive and spontaneously ignites when it comes into contact with air, the red form of this chemical is the least reactive of the two basic forms, and it ignites by friction. White phosphorus also has poor conducting properties and emits a weak green luminescence in the presence of oxygen.
How Was Phosphorus Discovered?
The story on the discovery of phosphorus is truly a serendipitous one – and started a new chapter of modern-day chemistry.
To begin with, in 1669 the German alchemist and a bankrupt merchant Hennig Brand was intrigued by the “philosopher’s stone” and the ways he could turn it into gold and regain his financial power.
For this, he tried an experiment with urine to achieve his dream – make gold out of a simple substance. Brand submitted the urine to all types of processes – he filtered and boiled it in order to trigger its evaporation which would produce salts. But, before all these procedures, this alchemist left the urine to rot. He believed that the resulting urine vapor would condense into gold in the end.
He did achieve a great thing; only it wasn’t the yellowish-copper precious metal he wished for. The substance produced as a result of his extensive experiment was white. It burnt with a brilliant light and glowed in the dark. It was an amazingly wondrous sight, indeed! Due to this, Hennig Brandt named his newly discovered substance “phosphorus mirabilis”, i.e. “the miraculous bearer of light”.
But, since Brand was interested more in improving his financial situation, he sold the scientific evidence from his experiment to Johann Daniel Kraft, Kunckel von Lowenstern, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
Believing that the German alchemist really did discover the ‘philosopher’s stone’, they all replicated his experiment until the 1770s when the Swedish scientist Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered a new way to produce the new element. Namely, he observed that bones dissolved in sulfuric acid are a great source of phosphoric acid which, exposed to heat, produces white phosphorus.
How Did Phosphorus Get Its Name?
The name of this chemical element originates from the Greek word ‘phosphoros’, denoting “ the bringer of light”. The substance Brand discovered was indeed luminous in the dark. When exposed to oxygen, it emitted a green-white light.
Where Can You Find Phosphorus?
Phosphorus is an essential mineral for humans, plants, animals, and all other life forms. It’s a building block of the cells and is integrated into almost all living tissues.
Due to its highly reactive nature, the pure, elemental form of phosphorus cannot be found in nature. But, despite this fact, this element is widely distributed as a part of phosphate rocks that contain the mineral labeled as apatite which is the main source of phosphorus.
The largest fluoroapatite mines are located in Russia, the United States, Morocco, Tunisia, Togo, and Nauru.
Phosphorus in Everyday Life
This chemical element is part of almost every known life form on Earth. Not only does phosphorus support the biological functions of humans, plants, and animals, but it is also one of the most important constituents of the things we use in our everyday life. For instance:
- The most commercially important phosphorus compounds are hypophosphorous acid, phosphorous acid, and phosphoric acid, i.e. the phosphorus oxoacids. These compounds are used as a catalyst in various reactions, in the manufacturing of buffer solutions, detergents, toothpaste, and fertilizers;
- A synthetic source of phosphorus is often added to cola drinks in the form of phosphoric acid;
- Tetrapotassium pyrophosphate (TKPP) is a type of phosphate applied in the production of cleaners for special cleaning products, such as industrial cleaners, silver cleaners, etc.;
- Black phosphorus is used in the production of anodes for lithium-ion batteries;
- Phosphate additives as often used as leavening agents in baked goods;
- The side of matchboxes is coated with red phosphorus that lights the matches;
- Frozen foods often contain sodium phosphate which prolongs the shelf life of the processed foods, convenience foods, as well as contributes to their faster preparation;
- Phosphoric acid gives the specific flavor of the soft drinks and prevents the growth of mold and bacteria;
- Phosphorus-32 is used in life-science laboratories for DNA sequencing; the molecular biology makes use of this isotope in the methods called Northern blots or Southern blots for detection of DNA sequences in given samples;
- As a vital plant nutrient, phosphorus is used in many types of fertilizers;
- White phosphorus is used in the making of the popular fluorescent lights and light-emitting diodes (LEDs);
- Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) is one of the key ingredients of both laundry and automatic dish detergents; its role in the detergents is to soften the water and remove oil, dirt, and grease;
- Phosphates also enrich water-based paints and coatings, pharmaceutical products, processed foods, flame retardants, and metal polishes.
Phosphorus and Health
Phosphorus is the second most abundant mineral in our body after calcium. In fact, inorganic phosphorus is an essential constituent of every life form on our planet. While the phosphates contribute to the production of DNA and RNA, in the form of calcium phosphate salts they also help to harden bones and teeth. These building blocks of the biological molecules also support the storage of energy in our body in the form of phospholipids. They also maintain the balance of vitamins and minerals (especially vitamin D, iodine, PTH hormone, magnesium, and zinc).
Furthermore, the cellular mechanisms use phosphorus to transport adenosine triphosphate – a form of cellular energy. The mineral phosphorus is also present in teeth enamel, the bones, extracellular fluids, and the soft tissues of the body.
What Is Phosphorus Deficiency?
Hypophosphatemia, or phosphorus deficiency, is characterized by low soluble phosphate levels in the blood. While being relatively rare, this disease may occur due to some eating disorders, alcohol abuse, hyperparathyroidism, diabetic ketoacidosis, kidney tubule defects, or insufficient phosphorus intake via food.
What Are the Symptoms of Phosphorus Deficiency?
Low levels of phosphorus in our body may trigger some adverse health conditions and symptoms that include:
- Easily decaying teeth;
- Stiff joints;
- Lack of appetite;
- Weakness and fatigue;
- Irregular breathing;
- Fragile bones.
By including food rich in phosphorus content in our daily intake, we can naturally increase phosphorus levels in our bodies. The following is a list of natural (food) sources of phosphorus that contain a significant amount of this vitally important mineral:
- Dairy products;
- Whole grain;
- Cod fish;
- Pork meat;
- Chicken meat;
- Sesame seeds;
- Sunflower seeds;
- Navy beans;
- Tuna fish;
- Green peas;
- Pinto beans;
- Swiss cheese;
- Brown rice;
- Dried peas.
Moreover, excessively high dietary phosphorus intake from foods that contain phosphorus or phosphates can be bad for our health, especially for people suffering from kidney disease. Namely, artificial phosphate food additives may increase the risk of lung cancer, kidney disease, and lead to renal and cardiovascular problems.
Since lack of appetite is one of the phosphorus deficiency, it becomes obvious that this mineral cannot be supplemented to adequate levels via phosphorus-rich food intake. Another way to top up the amount of phosphorus in our body is by taking supplements of this vitally important mineral.
According to the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and The Institute of Medicine, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of phosphorus intake is as follows:
- 700 mg for adults (both men and women),
- 700 mg for pregnant and breastfeeding women;
- 1,250 mg for children and teenagers (from 9-18 years);
- 500 mg for very young children (4-8 years);
- 460 mg for toddlers (1-3 years);
- 275 mg for infants (7-12 months);
- 100 mg for babies (from birth to 6 months).
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating and monitoring the use of phosphorus and phosphates in food, pharmaceutical products, and products for personal care. However, precautions must be taken because when phosphorus supplements are taken along with potassium supplements, their interaction may lead to hyperphosphatemia.
What is Hyperphosphatemia?
Hyperphosphatemia occurs in the case of excessively high levels of phosphorus or phosphates in the blood. High phosphorus levels in the blood are typically a sign of kidney problems, most common in individuals with chronic kidney disease (CKD).
In the case of chronic kidney disease, large amounts of phosphorus build up in the blood due to the kidney’s inability to get rid of the excess phosphorus. Normally functioning kidneys can remove the extra phosphorus by themselves. But, in this case, the accumulated levels of phosphorus can not only worsen kidney disease, but can also harm the bones.
The elevated blood levels of phosphorus also may result in increased blood pressure values which increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, irregular heartbeat, and a fatal outcome.
What Are the Symptoms of Hyperphosphatemia?
The symptoms experienced by individuals with excessively high levels of serum phosphorus sometimes resemble those of low calcium levels in the blood, since the large amounts of absorbed phosphorus in the tissues cause a drop in calcium levels.
Hyperphosphatemia may be caused by damaged cellular mechanisms, low parathyroid hormone levels, high vitamin D levels, serious infections, etc.
The typically experienced symptoms of hyperphosphatemia include:
- Muscle cramps;
- Poor kidney function;
- Poor bone health;
- Bone pains;
- Bad teeth;
- Numbness and tingling around the mouth.
Important: Please note that this phosphorus fact sheet is for educational and informative purposes only. This list is not complete and many other drugs may interact with phosphorus, including potassium supplements, antacids containing aluminum hydroxide or calcium carbonate, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, proton pump inhibitor (PPI) drugs, some laxatives, vitamins, and herbal products.
We strongly advise you to seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare provider or dietitian before treating any medical problems or adding phosphorus supplements to your diet.
How Dangerous Is Phosphorus?
While white phosphorus is highly toxic and any skin contact with it may result in severe burns, red phosphorus is not classified as a toxic substance.
As a common class of insecticides, organophosphates can easily harm people. Prolonged exposure to high levels of these phosphorus-containing insecticides may lead to organophosphate poisoning.
The more longer the toxic exposure is, the stronger are the effects of the organophosphate poisoning, which may include:
- Glassy eyes;
- Strong headache;
- Muscle twitching;
- Runny nose;
- Impaired vision;
- Excessive phlegm from the mouth;
- Involuntary urination and defecation;
- Narrowed pupils;
- Irregular heartbeat;
- Chest pain;
- Irregular breathing;
- Cardiac arrest;
People who live at or work at farms have an increased risk of organophosphate poisoning. However, it may occur as a result of the consumption of contaminated water or food with insecticides.
A Phossy Jaw
Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, or a phossy jaw, is an occupational disease affecting workers exposed to white phosphorus without protective equipment. It’s basically necrosis of the jaw where the tissue starts to rot and die out.
It usually starts with the formation of painful abscesses in the mouth that leads to a disfigurement of the face, and, very often, fatal brain damage. Due to the exceeding presence of phosphorus in the rotting tissue of the jaw, over time it starts to emit an eerie glow a greenish-white color in the dark.
Environmental Effects of Phosphorus
Both mining and cultivating are processes that release large emissions of phosphates in the environment. Since these phosphorus compounds cannot be completely removed by purification of the waters, they may also contaminate the soil and the food grown in the phosphates contaminated soil.
Isotopes of Phosphorus
Phosphorus has 23 isotopes with atomic mass ranging from 25P to 47P. The only stable form of phosphorus is the 31P isotope. The radioactive isotopes of phosphorus have a wide application in life-science laboratories that work on the production of radiolabeled DNA and RNA probes.
The extensive list of phosphorus isotopes, their decay modes, and natural abundance is presented in the table below:
|Z||N||Isotopic mass (Da)
[n 2][n 3]
[n 7][n 4]
|Natural abundance (mole fraction)|
|Excitation energy||Normal proportion||Range of variation|
|26P[n 8]||15||11||26.01178(21)#||43.7(6) ms||β+ (63.2%)||26Si||(3+)|
|β+, p (36.8%)||25Al|
|27P||15||12||26.999224(28)||260(80) ms||β+ (99.93%)||27Si||1/2+|
|β+, p (.07%)||26Al|
|28P||15||13||27.9923266(12)||270.3(5) ms||β+ (99.99%)||28Si||3+|
|β+, p (.0013%)||27Al|
|β+, α (8.6×10−4%)||24Mg|
|38P||15||23||37.98430(8)||0.64(14) s||β− (87.5%)||38S|
|β−, n (12.5%)||37S|
|39P||15||24||38.98629(12)||282(24) ms||β− (73.2%)||39S||1/2+#|
|β−, n (26.8%)||38S|
|40P||15||25||39.99129(16)||150(8) ms||β− (84.2%)||40S||(2−,3−)|
|β−, n (15.8%)||39S|
|41P||15||26||40.99465(13)||101(5) ms||β− (70%)||41S||1/2+#|
|β−, n (30%)||40S|
|42P||15||27||42.00108(34)||48.5(15) ms||β− (50%)||42S|
|β−, n (50%)||41S|
|43P||15||28||43.00502(60)||35.8(13) ms||β−, n||42S||1/2+#|
|45P||15||30||45.01675(54)#||8# ms [>200 ns]||β−||45S||1/2+#|
|46P||15||31||46.02466(75)#||4# ms [>200 ns]||β−||46S|
List of Phosphorus Compounds
The chemical element phosphorus is highly reactive and forms numerous compounds, such as phosphates, metal phosphates, oxides, halides, oxyacids, and phosphides.
Any chemical compound that contains phosphorus bonded with oxygen is labeled as phosphate. There are three types of phosphates:
- Orthophosphate – This type of phosphate is the most common phosphorus oxoanion. The four oxygen atoms form cations in solid orthophosphates. This, in turn, forms solid chemical bonds.
- Pyrophosphate – These phosphorus oxyanions contain two phosphorus atoms that often form salts which are usually derived from partial or complete neutralization of pyrophosphoric acid.
- Polyphosphate – This highly anionic inorganic polymer is made up of phosphate monomers linked with high-energy phosphoanhydride bonds. Every prokaryotic and eukaryotic cell contains polyphosphates, such as ATP.
The following is a list of the most common phosphorus compounds:
- Ammonium phosphomolybdate
- Basic lead phosphite
- Diphosphorus tetraiodide
- Disodium hydrogen phosphite
- Indium phosphide
- Phosphomolybdic acid
- Phosphonium iodide
- Phosphorus halide
- Phosphorus monoxide
- Phosphorus pentabromide
- Phosphorus pentachloride
- Phosphorus pentafluoride
- Phosphorus pentasulfide
- Phosphorus pentoxide
- Phosphorus selenide
- Phosphorus sesquisulfide
- Phosphorus sulfide
- Phosphorus tetroxide
- Phosphorus tribromide
- Phosphorus trichloride
- Phosphorus trifluoride
- Phosphorus triiodide
- Phosphorus trioxide
- Sodium hypophosphite
- Triphosphorus pentanitride
- Chiral phosphoric acid
- Hypophosphoric acid
- Hypophosphorous acid
- Phosphoric acid
- Phosphorous acid
- Pyrophosphoric acid
- Triphosphoric acid
- Adenosine diphosphate ribose
- Alkyl phosphate
- Calcium glycerylphosphate
- Carbamoyl phosphate
- 2-Carboxy-D-arabitinol 1-phosphate
- Fructose 1-phosphate
- Fructose 6-phosphate
- Glucose 6-phosphate
- Glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate
- Glycerol 1-phosphate
- Ribose 5-phosphate
- Ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate
- Ribulose 5-phosphate
- Thiamine pyrophosphate
- Tabun (nerve agent)
- Nicotinic acid adenine dinucleotide phosphate
- Cyclic adenosine monophosphate
- Cyclic ADP-ribose
5 Interesting Facts and Explanations
- The discoverer of phosphorus, Hennig Brand, is the first person in modern history to discover a new chemical element after ancient times.
- Some processed foods contain large amounts of phosphorus additives, i.e. synthetic phosphorus. The list of products that contain added phosphates includes cola drinks, processed meats, fast food, baked goods, and frozen food.
- Remdesivir (C27H35N6O8P) is a monophosphoramidate prodrug that has phosphorus in the structure of its organic molecule. The clinical trials show evidence that this medicine has a broad-spectrum antiviral activity against paramyxoviruses, flaviviruses, and coronaviruses, including the novel variation Covid-19.
- Novichok agent is a group of organophosphate nerve agents. Some of the nerve agents that comprise this group are used as binary chemical weapons. The scientists at the Russian State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) who have developed this group of organophosphorus poisons as military weapons claim that they are “the deadliest ever made”. Exactly because phosphorus is used in nerve agents, poisons, and explosives, it is also labeled as the “Devil’s element”.
- Phosphorus and calcium together form hydroxyapatite, i.e. the main structural component of bones and tooth enamel.