Periodic Table > Phosphorus


Some elements exist in several different structural forms, these are called allotropes.

For more information on Murray Robertson’s image see Uses/Interesting Facts below.


Fact Box Terminology

Elements appear in columns or ‘groups’ in the periodic table. Members of a group typically have similar properties and electron configurations in their outer shell.

Elements are laid out into rows or ‘periods’ so that similar chemical behaviour is observed in columns.

Elements are organised into blocks by the orbital type in which the outer electrons are found. These blocks are named for the characteristic spectra they produce: sharp, principal, diffuse, and fundamental.

Atomic Number
The number of protons in the nucleus.

Atomic Radius/non -bonded (Å)
based on Van der Waals forces (where several isotopes exist, a value is presented for the most prevalent isotope). These values were calculated using a multitude of methods including crystallographic data, gas kinetic collision cross sections, critical densities, liquid state properties, for more details please refer to the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.

Electron Configuration
The arrangements of electrons above the last (closed shell) noble gas.

Elements are defined by the number of protons in its centre (nucleus), whilst the number of neutrons present can vary. The variations in the number of neutrons will create elements of different mass which are known as isotopes.

Melting Point (oC)
The temperature at which the solid-liquid phase change occurs.

Melting Point (K)
The temperature at which the solid-liquid phase change occurs.

Melting Point (oF)
The temperature at which the solid-liquid phase change occurs.

Boiling Point (oC)
The temperature at which the liquid-gas phase change occurs.

Boiling Point (K)
The temperature at which the liquid-gas phase change occurs.

Boiling Point (oF)
The temperature at which the liquid-gas phase change occurs.

Elements that do not possess a liquid phase at atmospheric pressure (1 atm) are described as going through a sublimation process.

Density (kgm-3)
Density is the weight of a substance that would fill 1 m3 (at 298 K unless otherwise stated).

Relative Atomic Mass
The mass of an atom relative to that of Carbon-12. This is approximately the sum of the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Where more than one isotope exists the value given is the abundance weighted average.

Key Isotopes (% abundance)
An element must by definition have a fixed number of protons in its nucleus, and as such has a fixed atomic number, however variants of an element can exist with differing numbers of neutrons, and hence a different atomic masses (e.g. 12C has 6 protons and 6 neutrons and 13C has 6 protons and 7 neutrons).

CAS number
The Chemical Abstracts Service registry number is a unique identifier of a particular chemical, designed to prevent confusion arising from different languages and naming systems (where several isotopes exist, a value is presented for the most prevalent isotope).

Fact Box

Group 15  Melting point 44.15 oC, 111.47 oF, 317.3 K 
Period Boiling point 280.5 oC, 536.9 oF, 553.65 K 
Block Density (kg m-3) 1820 (yellow) 
Atomic number 15  Relative atomic mass 30.974  
State at room temperature Solid  Key isotopes 31
Electron configuration [Ne] 3s23p3  CAS number 7723-14-0 
ChemSpider ID 4575369 ChemSpider is a free chemical structure database

Interesting Facts terminology

Image Explanation

Murray Robertson is the artist behind the images which make up Visual Elements. This is where the artist explains his interpretation of the element and the science behind the picture.

Natural Abundance

Where this element is most commonly found in nature.

Biological Roles

The elements role within the body of humans, animals and plants. Also functionality in medical advancements both today and years ago.


The description of the element in its natural form.

Uses / Interesting Facts

Image explanation

The image represents a polyhedral model of white phosphorus. The tetrahedron represents the bonding in the molecule.


The two main forms of phosphorus are white phosphorus (a poisonous waxy solid that is spontaneously flammable when exposed to air and which glows in the dark) and red phosphorus, an amorphous non-poisonous solid.


An important source is phosphate rock, which contains the apatite minerals and is found in large quantities in the USA and elsewhere, though there are fears that ‘peak phosphorus’ will occur around 2050 after which our sources will dwindle. White phosphorus is manufactured industrially by heating phosphate rock in the presence of carbon and silica in a furnace, which produces phosphorus as a vapour which is then collected under water. Red phosphorus, made by gently heating white phosphorus to about 250°C in the absence of air, does not glow, is stable and is not poisonous.


White phosphorus is used in flares and incendiary devises. Red phosphorus is the material, mixed with powdered glass, stuck on the side of boxes of safety matches on which the matches must be struck to light them. However by far the largest use of phosphorus is for fertilisers, mainly in the form of ammonium phosphate – they are manufactured from phosphate ores by conversion into phosphoric acids with contaminated calcium sulfate as an unusable waste product. Phosphorus is also important in the production of steel. Phosphates are ingredients of some detergents, but are increasingly being omitted nowadays due to concern that high phosphate levels in natural water supplies cause the growth of undesirable algae. Phosphates are also used in the production of special glasses and fine chinaware.

Biological role

Phosphorus is essential to all living things since it forms the structural sugar-phosphate helices of DNA and RNA. It is the key to energy transfer in cells in the weakly bonded third phosphate group in ATP (adenosine-Tri-phosphate), and is present in several other biologically important molecules. We take in about 1 gram of phosphate a day, and we store about 750 grams in our bodies, since our bones and teeth are mainly calcium phosphate. Over-use of phosphates from fertilisers and detergents can cause them to pollute rivers and lakes causing them to become eutrophic – rapid algal growth blocks out light preventing further photosynthesis. The dissolved oxygen soon gets used up and the lake dies. White phosphorus is very toxic and contact with skin can cause severe burns.

Natural abundance

Phosphorus is not found uncombined in nature, but is widely distributed in combination mainly as phosphates. It is an important constituent of all living things.

Atomic Data Terminology

Atomic radius/non -bonded (Å)
Based on Van der Waals forces (where several isotopes exist, a value is presented for the most prevalent isotope). These values were calculated using a multitude of methods including crystallographic data, gas kinetic collision cross sections, critical densities, liquid state properties,for more details please refer to the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.

Electron affinity (kJ mol-1)
The energy released when an additional electron is attached to the neutral atom and a negative ion is formed (where several isotopes exist, a value is presented for the most prevalent isotope). *

Electronegativity (Pauling scale)
The degree to which an atom attracts electrons towards itself, expressed on a relative scale as a function bond dissociation energies, Ed in eV. χA - χB =(eV)-1/2sqrt(Ed(AB)-[Ed(AA)+Ed(BB)]/2), with χH set as 2.2 (where several isotopes exist, a value is presented for the most prevalent isotope).

1st Ionisation energy (kJ mol-1)
The minimum energy required to remove an electron from a neutral atom in its ground state (where several isotopes exist, a value is presented for the most prevalent isotope).

Covalent radius (Å)
The size of the atom within a covalent bond, given for typical oxidation number and coordination (where several isotopes exist, a value is presented for the most prevalent isotope). ***

Atomic Data

Atomic radius, non-bonded (Å) 1.800 Covalent radius (Å) 1.09
Electron affinity (kJ mol-1) 72.075 Electronegativity
(Pauling scale)
Ionisation energies
(kJ mol-1)
Bonding and Enthalpies terminology

Covalent Bonds
The strengths of several common covalent bonds.

Bonding / Enthalpies

Covalent bonds
N≡P  582  kJ mol -1 P–P  198  kJ mol -1 P≡P  485  kJ mol -1
H–P  321  kJ mol -1  

Mining/Sourcing Information

Data for this section of the data page has been provided by the British Geological Survey. To review the full report please click here or please look at their website here.

Key for numbers generated

Governance indicators

1 (low) = 0 to 2

2 (medium-low) = 3 to 4

3 (medium) = 5 to 6

4 (medium-high) = 7 to 8

5 (high) = 9

Reserve base distribution

1 (low) = 0 to 30 %

2 (medium-low) = 30 to 45 %

3 (medium) = 45 to 60 %

4 (medium-high) = 60 to 75 %

5 (high) = 75 %

(Where data are unavailable an arbitrary score of 2 was allocated. For example, Be, As, Na, S, In, Cl, Ca and Ge are allocated a score of 2 since reserve base information is unavailable. Reserve base data are also unavailable for coal; however, reserve data for 2008 are available from the Energy Information Administration (EIA).)

Production Concentration

1 (low) = 0 to 30 %

2 (medium-low) = 30 to 45 %

3 (medium) = 45 to 60 %

4 (medium-high) = 60 to 75 %

5 (high) = 75 %

Crustal Abundance

1 (low) = 100 to 1000 ppm

2 (medium-low) =10 to 100 ppm

3 (medium) = 1 to 10 ppm

4 (medium-high) = 0.1 to 1 ppm

5 (high) = 0.1 ppm

(Where data are unavailable an arbitrary score of 2 was allocated. For example, He is allocated a score of 2 since crustal abundance data is unavailable.)

Explanations for terminology

Crustal Abundance (ppm)

The abundance of an element in the Earth's crust in parts-per-million (ppm) i.e. The number of atoms of this element per 1 million atoms of crust.


The country with the largest reserve base.

Reserve Base Distribution

This is a measure of the spread of future supplies, recording the percentage of a known resource likely to be available in the intermediate future (reserve base) located in the top three countries.

Production Concentrations

This reports the percentage of an element produced in the top three countries. The higher the value, the larger risk there is to supply.

Total Governance Factor

The World Bank produces a global percentile rank of political stability. The scoring system is given below, and the values for all three production countries were summed.

Relative Supply Risk Index

The Crustal Abundance, Reserve Base Distribution, Production Concentration and Governance Factor scores are summed and then divided by 2, to provide an overall Relative Supply Risk Index.

Supply Risk

Scarcity factor 5.0
Country with largest reserve base Morocco
Crustal abundance (ppm) 567
Leading producer China
Reserve base distribution (%) 44.70
Production concentration (%) 38.50
Total governance factor(production) 9
Top 3 countries (mined)
  • 1) Morocco
  • 2) China
  • 3) USA
Top 3 countries (production)
  • 1) China
  • 2) Mexico
  • 3) Morocco

Oxidation states/ Isotopes

Key for Isotopes

Half Life
  y years
  d days
  h hours
  m minutes
  s seconds
Mode of decay
  α alpha particle emission
  β negative beta (electron) emission
  β+ positron emission
  EC orbital electron capture
  sf spontaneous fission
  ββ double beta emission
  ECEC double orbital electron capture


Common Oxidation states
The oxidation state of an atom is a measure of the degree of oxidation of an atom. It is defined as being the charge that an atom would have if all bonds were ionic. Free atoms have an oxidation state of 0, and the sum of oxidation numbers within a substance must equal the overall charge.

Important Oxidation states
The most common oxidation states of an element in its compounds.

Elements are defined by the number of protons in its centre (nucleus), whilst the number of neutrons present can vary. The variations in the number of neutrons will create elements of different mass which are known as isotopes.

Oxidation States / Isotopes

Common oxidation states 5, 3, -3
Isotopes Isotope Atomic mass Natural abundance (%) Half life Mode of decay
  31P 30.974 100

Pressure and Temperature - Advanced Terminology

Molar Heat Capacity (J mol-1 K-1)

Molar heat capacity is the energy required to heat a mole of a substance by 1 K.

Young's modulus (GPa)

Young's modulus is a measure of the stiffness of a substance, that is, it provides a measure of how difficult it is to extend a material, with a value given by the ratio of tensile strength to tensile strain.

Shear modulus (GPa)

The shear modulus of a material is a measure of how difficult it is to deform a material, and is given by the ratio of the shear stress to the shear strain.

Bulk modulus (GPa)

The bulk modulus is a measure of how difficult to compress a substance. Given by the ratio of the pressure on a body to the fractional decrease in volume.

Vapour Pressure (Pa)

Vapour pressure is the measure of the propensity of a substance to evaporate. It is defined as the equilibrium pressure exerted by the gas produced above a substance in a closed system.

Pressure / Temperature - Advanced

Molar heat capacity
(J mol-1 K-1)
23.824 Young's modulus (GPa) Unknown
Shear modulus (GPa) Unknown Bulk modulus (GPa) 10.9 (red); 4.9 (white)
Vapour pressure  
Temperature (K)
400 600 800 1000 1200 1400 1600 1800 2000 2200 2400
Pressure (Pa)
- - - - - - - - - - -
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Phosphorus was first made by Hennig Brandt at Hamburg in 1669 when he evaporated urine and heated the residue until it was red hot, whereupon phosphorus vapour distilled which he collected by condensing it in water. Brandt kept his discovery secret, thinking he had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone that could turn base metals into gold. When he ran out of money, he sold phosphorus to Daniel Kraft who exhibited it around Europe including London where Robert Boyle was fascinated by it. He discovered how it was produced and investigated it systematically. (His assistant Ambrose Godfrey set up his own business making and selling phosphorus and became rich.)

When it was realised that bone was calcium phosphate, and could be used to make phosphorus, and it became more widely available. Demand from match manufacturers in the 1800s ensured a ready market.

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Listen to Phosphorus Podcast
Transcript :

Chemistry in its Element - Phosphorus



You're listening to Chemistry in its element brought to you by Chemistry World, the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry

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Chris Smith

Hello - this week fertilisers, fire bombs, phossy jaw and food additives. What's the connection? Here's Nina Notman. 


Nina Notman

Phosphorus is a non-metal that sits just below nitrogen in group 15 of the periodic table. This element exists in several forms, of which white and red are the best known. 


White phosphorus is definitely the more exciting of the two. As it glows in the dark, is dangerously flammable in the air above 30 degrees, and is a deadly poison. Red phosphorus however has none of these fascinating properties.


So where did it all begin? Phosphorus was first made by Hennig Brandt in Hamburg in Germany in 1669. When he evaporated urine and heated the residue until it was red hot. Glowing phosphorus vapour came off and he condensed it under water. And for more than 100 years most phosphorus was made this way. This was until people realised that bone was a great source of phosphorus. Bone can be dissolved in sulfuric acid to form phosphoric acid, which is then heated with charcoal to form white phosphorus.


White phosphorus has found a range of rather nasty applications in warfare.   It was used in the 20th century in tracer bullets, fire bombs, and smoke grenades. The scattering of phosphorus fire bombs over cities in World War II caused widespread death and destruction. In July 1943, Hamburg was subject to several air raids in which 25,000 phosphorus bombs were dropped over vast areas of the city. This is rather ironically considering where phosphorus was first made. 


Another group of warfare agents based on phosphorus are nerve gases such as sarin. Sarin is a fluorinated phosphonate that was used by Iraq against Iran in the early to mid-1980s. And was also released in a Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people and harming nearly a thousand others.


White phosphorus has also found a wide range of other uses. One of these was in phosphorus matches that were first sold in Stockton-on-Tees in the UK in 1827. This created a whole new industry of cheap lights - but at a terrible cost. Breathing in phosphorus vapour led to the industrial disease phossy jaw, which slowly ate away the jaw bone. This condition particularly afflicted the girls who made phosphorus matches. So these were eventually banned in the early 1900s and were replaced by modern matches which use either phosphorus sulfide or red phosphorus. 


As well as in matches, today phosphorus has found other uses in lighting. Magnesium phosphide is the basis of self-igniting warning flares used at sea. When it reacts with water it forms the spontaneously flammable gas, diphosphine which triggers the lighting of the flare.


Super pure phosphorus is also used to make light emitting diodes. These LEDs contain metal phosphides such as those of gallium and indium. 


In the natural world the elemental form of phosphorus is never encountered. It is only seen as phosphate, and phosphate is essential to life for numerous reasons. It is part of DNA, and also constitutes a huge proportion of teeth enamel and bones in the form of calcium phosphate. Organophosphates are also important, such as the energy molecule ATP and the phospholipids of cell membranes. 


A normal diet provides our bodies with the phosphate it needs. With tuna, chicken, eggs and cheese having lots. And even cola provide us with some, in the form of phosphoric acid.


Today most of our phosphorus comes from phosphate rock that is mined around the world, and then converted to phosphoric acid. Fifty million tonnes are made every year and it has multiple uses. It is used to make fertilisers, animal feeds, rust removers, corrosion preventers, and even dishwasher tablets. 


Some phosphate rock is also heated with coke and sand in an electric furnace to form white phosphorus which is then converted to phosphorus trichloride and phosphorous acid. And it is from these that flame retardants, insecticides, and weed-killers are made. A little is also turned into phosphorus sulfides which are used as oil additives to reduce engine wear.


Phosphate is also environmentally important. It naturally moves from soil, to rivers, to oceans, to bottom sediment. Here it accumulates until it is moved by geological uplift to dry land so the circle can start again. During its journey, phosphate passes through many plants, microbes, and animals of various eco-systems. 


Too much phosphate however can be damaging to natural waters because it encourages unwanted species like algae to flourish. These then crowd out other forms of desired life. There is now a legal requirement to remove phosphate from wastewaters in many parts of the world, and in the future this could be recycled as a sustainable resource so that one day the phosphate we flush down sinks and toilets might reappear in our homes in other guises such as in dishwasher tablets and maybe even in our food and colas.


Chris Smith

Nina Notman with the tale of Phosphorus, the element extracted from the golden stream, otherwise known as urine.   Next time Andrea Sella will be joining us with the explosive story of element number 53.  


Andrea Sella

In 1811 a young French chemist, Bernard Courtois, working in Paris stumbled across a new element. His family's firm produced the saltpetre needed to make gunpowder for Napoleon's wars.   They used wood ash in their process and wartime shortages of wood forced them instead to burn seaweed.   Adding concentrated sulphuric acid to the ash, Courtois, obtained an astonishing purple vapour that crystallized onto the sides of the container. Astonished by this discovery he bottled up the greyish crystals and sent them to one of the foremost chemists of his day Joseph Guy-Lussac who confirmed that this was a new element and named it iode - iodine - after the Greek word for purple. 


Chris Smith

And you can hear more about how Iodine exploded onto the world's stage on next week's Chemistry in its Element, I hope you can join us. I'm Chris Smith, thank you for listening and goodbye.




Chemistry in its elementis brought to you by the Royal Society of Chemistry and produced by thenakedscientists dot com. There's more information and other episodes of Chemistry in its element on our website at chemistryworld dot org forward slash elements. 


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Images:  Visual Elements © Murray Robertson 2011
Mining and Sourcing data:  British Geological Survey – natural environment research council.
Text:  John Emsley Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2011.
Additional information for platinum, gold, neodymium and dysprosium obtained from Material Value Consultancy Ltd
Data: CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, CRC Press, 92nd Edition, 2011.
G. W. C. Kaye and T. H. Laby Tables of Physical and Chemical Constants, Longman, 16th Edition, 1995.
Members of the RSC can access these books through our library.