Phosphorus, from the Greek phosphoros meaning light-bearing, was the old name for Venus.
It is the first element for which we know the exact year of discovery: 1669. Hennig Brand made 120 grams of phosphorus by boiling down 5,500 litres of urine, ending up with a waxy white solid that glowed in the dark without giving off heat. However, it wasn’t recognised as an element until more than a century later.
As well as white phosphorus, there are allotropes of red and black phosphorus.
It is very flammable and was used in early matchsticks.
Phosphates are important fertilisers, and one source of it is guano, aka bird poo. Allan Blackman from AUT has the full story, in ep 58 of Elemental.
The Elemental podcast is celebrating 150 years since the periodic table was first published by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev.
Find out more about events during the United Nation’s International Year of the Periodic Table.
Professor Allan Blackman is at Auckland University of Technology.