Monday, September 16, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 15

Fifteen days to Opening Night, and Fearless is running out of elements to match with your Washington Capitals.  Next in line is number 15…


The name “phosphorus” comes from the Greek word, “phosphoros,” meaning “bringer of light,” an ancient name for the planet Venus.  The name was bestowed upon the element as a result of the glow that phosphorus gives off in the presence of oxygen.  The glow is evidence of the high reactivity of phosphorus, an element not found in nature in a pure form for just that reason.

Phosphorus as an element exists almost entirely in two forms, white and red (convenient for our purposes here, covering the Caps and all).  White phosphorus glows green in the dark and is self-igniting in the presence of air.  It must be stored in water to avoid this occurrence.  Red phosphorus is obtained by heating white phosphorus and is more stable than its white counterpart.  It will not spontaneously ignite in air, although as we will see in a moment, that does not make it entirely safe.

Phosphorus is named for a word meaning “bringer of light,” but it also has another term attached to it – “The Devil’s Element.”  Why?  Well, it was the 13th element to be discovered (the number 13 thought to be an unlucky number).  Also, it its “red” form it was used to make matches (“frictional” heating, such as striking it across a rough surface, returns the “red” phosphorus to its “white” form, which then ignites).

It was discovered in 1669 by German chemist Hennig Brand, and this is where the story turns just a bit weird.  Brand, who might have been an otherwise rational sort of fellow, set out to create the “philosopher’s stone,” a centerpiece of alchemy thought to be capable of turning base metals (lead, for instance) into gold or silver.  Brand got it into his head that he might be able to accomplish the feat by distilling salts from (and we’re not making this up) urine.  We are not going to go through the whole, frankly disgusting process, other than to say it required large quantities that took up to two weeks to accumulate (these days, that’s what graduate research assistants are for).

He must have been disappointed when he did not end up with gold, but rather a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark.  What he had was ammonium sodium hydrogen phosphate.  It would be up to Johann Kunckel, a Swedish chemist (you knew there had to be one here somewhere), to produce elemental phosphorus in 1678 from the compound Brand synthesized.

Today, phosphorus has a variety of uses – flame retardants, pesticides, water treatment, steel production, water softening, carbonated soft drinks (which used to be called “phosphates”).  There are two applications that bear special notice.  One, in its calcium phosphate form, is bone china – a fine material that contains a minimum of 30 percent phosphate.  The other is, as we hinted, matches.  The head of the match contains phosphorus that ignites when struck on a rough surface.

What we have is an element that is unsafe in one of its predominant forms, capable of spontaneous ignition, and potentially dangerous in another, a form in which it can be ignited under special conditions.  It has something of an odd history about it, and it can be found in materials that can, on occasion, be fragile.  It sounds like a defenseman who can be a bit dangerous in his own end from time to time, but who at the other end can ignite an offense.  A defenseman who can be fairly described as a bit odd on occasion and who has been a bit fragile, subject to injury.

Phosphorus… the “Mike Green” of the elements of the periodic table.

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