Why is phosphorus vital

Phosphorus is vital, but sometimes deadly.

The Hamburg alchemist Henning Brand is considered the discoverer of phosphorus (element symbol: P). Like many of these early chemists, he wanted to produce the Philosopher's Stone in 1669 and thus polish up his finances. Although he had made fortune by marriage, he had spent all of the money on his experiments. It was believed at the time that the Philosopher's Stone could be used to turn base metals into gold. In one of his experiments, Brand heated more than 100 liters of human urine until a black carbon-like substance and a salt were formed. He transferred this mixture to a retort, a medieval still. When he put it on a charcoal fire, the inside of the vessel suddenly shone in a bright light, accompanied by an intense smoke development.

What happened at Brand's trial? There are numerous phosphorus compounds in the human body. For example, phosphate (PO₄³–) is an important component of DNA. And the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP) serves as a universal energy carrier in our cells. We ingest phosphate with our food and excrete it in our urine. If you steam urine like a fire over a fire, the phosphates contained in it precipitate and form, for example, the salt sodium ammonium hydrogen phosphate (NaNH₄HPO₄). With continued heating, it continues to react to form sodium polyphosphate (NaPO₃) n. At the same time, various organic waste products break down into carbon (C) due to the strong heat development ...

This article is featured in Spectrum of Science July 2018