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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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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