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The “Light-Bearing” Element



Browse the full phosphorus catalog here


Common Oxidation


Density (g/cm3)

Common Isotopes


Atomic Radius

Crystal Structure


-3, +3, +5




2.19 (Pauling)

107 pm



*data provided is for red phosphorus


Discovery – 1669, Hennig Brand, Germany

Phosphorus was accidentally discovered by Henning Brand while he was working with urine. As an alchemist, Brand attempted to create the philosopher’s stone, a legendary stone that could transmute base elements into gold.1 It was believed that bodily products such as hair, urine, and eggs could produce the fabled stone. In his attempt to make the philosopher’s stone, he instead produced and discovered one of the most critical elements of our food supply system.2

During his work on the stone, Brand took several hundred liters of urine (yes, you read that correctly), allowed it to rot, boiled off the excess water leaving a paste.  Heating the paste resulted in vapors which he passed through a column of water. Brand’s hope was that these vapors would condense into gold.  Instead, he found a white substance that glowed in the dark. Brand named this substance phosphorus mirabilis (miraculous bearer of light).


Fun Facts

  • Phosphorus was the ancient Greek name for the planet Venus, once called Lucifer (light-bearer)
  • Because it can spontaneously combust, phosphorus is referred to as “The Devil’s Element”4
  • Early production of phosphorus also came from biological sources, namely, guano, in the 19th century5


Phosphorus Products and their Functions



15-1260: A Ligand used in transition-metal-catalyzed coupling reactions.

15-1390: A Chiral Phosphoric Acid, used for asymmetric synthesis.

15-9155: Vinylphosphonic Acid. Used in polymerization to make polyvinylphosphoric acid a promoter for adhesion between organic and inorganic phases.



See Related Booklets:

Phosphorus Ligands and Compounds Booklet

Chiral Phosphoric Acids Booklet


Browse the full phosphorus catalog here



  1. Chemosphere, 2011, 84, 737.
  1. BioScience, 2011, 61, 117.
  1. J. Chem. Educ., 1932, 9, 11.
  1. The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus, 2012.
  1. Bioceramic Coatings for Medical Implants, 2015.




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