Burning match.

Phosphorus is used to set matches alight.

Image: Sebastian Ritter/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-2.5

Strike a match. It lights thanks to phosphorus. This element doesn’t just have fiery applications – it’s important for life itself.

Phosphorus comes in a number of different forms, called allotropes. The two main allotropes get their names from their colours: white phosphorus and red phosphorus. Both allotropes are reactive. White phosphorus is so reactive that it can spontaneously burst into flames when exposed to oxygen. The red phosphorus used in matches is slightly more stable.

Phosphorus is so reactive that, in nature, it is only found in combination with other elements. A common combination is for one phosphorus atom to combine with four oxygen atoms to form a phosphate ion.

A number of important biological compounds contain phosphates. DNA, which holds an organism’s genetic information, contains phosphates. Adenosine triphosphate is used by cells to produce energy. In humans, phosphorus is also needed to build strong teeth and bones.

Organisms need phosphorus to survive, but too much can be a problem. Fertilisers used in agriculture often contain phosphorus compounds, which help plants grow. When these compounds find their way into rivers, streams and lakes they can also help algal blooms to grow and may damage aquatic ecosystems and lower water quality.

Run-off from agriculture as well as wastewater from homes and industry can all increase phosphorus levels in waterways. As the concentrations of this chemical are often low, it makes it difficult to remove phosphorus from wastewater before it’s released into the environment.

A team from CSIRO has come up with a new way to remove phosphorus from wastewater, called enhanced biological phosphorus removal and recovery (EBPR-r). This method uses bacteria to remove phosphorus from wastewater. While using bacteria to remove phosphorus from wastewater is not a new idea, CSIRO’s method also allows the phosphorus to be recovered. The phosphorus can then be reused to make things like fertilisers or matches.

Matches, DNA, bones, fertiliser and pollution – phosphorus is an element with many different aspects. Hopefully research such as this allows phosphorus to keep sustaining life, without overdoing it!

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