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phosphorus

Biological Importance and Applications

Phosphorus is present in plants and animals. There is over 1 lb (454 grams) of phosphorus in the human body. It is a component of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a fundamental energy source in living things. It is found in complex organic compounds in the blood, muscles, and nerves, and in calcium phosphate, the principal material in bones and teeth. Phosphorus compounds are essential in the diet. Organic phosphates, ferric phosphate, and tricalcium phosphate are added to foods. Dicalcium phosphate is added to animal feeds.

White phosphorus is used as a deoxidizing agent in the preparation of steel and phosphor bronze. It is also used in rat poisons and to make smoke screens (by burning) for warfare. Red phosphorus is used in making matches. The major use of phosphorus compounds is in fertilizers, especially in a mixture called superphosphate, obtained from phosphate minerals by sulfuric acid treatment; and in nitrophosphates. Phosphorus compounds are also used commercially in detergents, water softeners, pharmaceuticals, dentifrices, and in many other less important uses. Toxic nerve gases such as sarin contain phosphorus.

Phosphoric acid is primarily used in the production of phosphate compounds. It is also used in pickling metals, in sugar refining, and in soft drinks. Phosphorus forms a number of compounds with the halogens, e.g., the trichloride, PCl3, and the pentachloride, PCl5, both used as reagents. It also forms an oxychloride, POCl3. It reacts with sulfur to form a pentasulfide, P2S5, and a thiochloride, PSCl3, used in insecticides and oil additives. Phosphine, PH3, is a poisonous gas. Besides the pentoxide, phosphorus forms several other oxides; there are several acids other than the orthophosphoric acid noted above. Phosphorus also combines with various other nonmetals and with some metals.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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