What is Phosphorus? - Chemical Element
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What is Phosphorus?

Phosphorus diagram
Diagram of a phosphorus atom

Phosphorus atoms have fifteen protons and sixteen neutrons, so they're just a little lighter than sulphur atoms, in the middle of the range for atoms. Stars make phosphorus when two oxygen atoms get very hot and squash together into one phosphorus atom.

All living things, both plants and animals, are made partly of phosphorus, and they can't live without it. We need phosphorus to make lipids for cell membranes, and also to make RNA and DNA.

On earth, nearly all of the phosphorus atoms have combined with oxygen atoms to make molecules of phosphate. People use phosphates mainly as fertilizers for plants, but also in matches, where the phosporus reacts with sulphur when you strike a match to make the flame. (Phosphorus itself is poisonous to people, so today matches use a different version of phosphorus that's safer.)

Learn by doing - Phosphorus and Matches

Bibliography and further reading:

What is Sulphur?
Chemistry
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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