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History of Phosphorus : Introduction and Timeline

History of Science and Technology Index

Characters involved in the Phosphorus Story

Hennig Brand (1630 - c. 1710)
Johann Kunckel (1630 - 1703)
Johann Daniel Krafft (1624 - 1697) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716)
Johann Joachim Becher (1635 - c. 1682)
Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691) and his Assistants

Transcripts of Publications (1677 - 1853)

Aerial Noctiluca : Robert Boyle 1680

Icy Noctiluca : Robert Boyle 1682

An Account of four sorts of factitious
Shining Substances : Robert Boyle 1677


A Paper of the Honourable Robert Boyle's,
Opened Since His Death (1692)


Some Observations made upon an Artificial
Shining Substance : Robert Boyle 1677


Extracts from John Evelyn's Diary 1681 and 1685

Experiments made with the liquid and of the solid
Phosphorus : Frederick Slare 1681


Extract from Experiments of the Luminous
Qualities of Amber : Samuel Wall 1708


On the Discovery of Phosphorus and a
Biography of Ambrose Godfrey
Hanckwitz : Joseph Ince 1853


An Extract from "An Account of some
Experiments upon the Phosphorus Urinæ"
by Ambrose Godfrey Hanckwitz 1731

 

Alchymist

The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher's Stone,
Discovers Phosphorus
by Joseph Wright of Derby
(Derby Museum and Art Gallery)

 

HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

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The Chemical Equations of the reactions involved in the production of Phosphorus

 

The Actual Chemistry

Urine is between 91% and 96% water containing

  • organic molecules such as urea, uric acid and creatinine,

  • salts containing cations such as Na+, K+, Mg2+, Ca2+ and NH4+

  • and anions such as Cl-, SO42-, PO43- and HCO3-

There are trace amounts of other organic acids, proteins, carbohydrates, pigments and hormones.

Evaporating urine leaves complex phosphate salts, such as ammonium sodium phosphate [(NH4)NaHPO4)]

On heating the ammonium sodium phosphate decomposes to give sodium phosphite, ammonia and water

 

equation01

 

On further heating the sodium phosphite reacts with carbon (charcoal) to form white phosphorus, sodium pyrophosphate and carbon monoxide

 

equation02

 

Adding sand to the final distillation (as did Kunckel, Boyle and Slare) will liberate phosphorus from sodium phosphite.

 

equation04

The other products are sodium silicate and carbon monoxide.

 

Hennig Brand's process was inefficient because he removed the salt layer that contained most of the phosphate salts. Had he kept the salt layer he would have increased his yield by up to a hundred times more.

The phosphorus produced by distilling urine is white phosphorus. White phosphorus is a waxy, white-yellow, transparent solid. In the presence of oxygen it gives off a green luminescence. It will ignite in the air, reacting with the oxygen to give phosphorus pentoxide (P4O10).

If white phosphorus is heated or left in the sunlight it will change to red phosphorus.

 

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