What are Phosphates?

PHOSPHATES IN EVERYDAY LIVING

Phosphates todayPhosphorus is a nutrient vital to human, animal, and plant life. It is one of the most common substances in our environment, naturally occurring in our food, our water and our bodies. In your body, phosphorus is present in your genes, your teeth, and your bones -- even your muscles work because of the phosphorus in adenosine triphosphate.

According to author Arthur Toy, elemental phosphorus was discovered accidentally in 1669 while an impoverished German chemist was trying to make gold. Today phosphorus is an important part of many of the products that are indispensable to modern living and good health.

A single phosphorus compound can have a broad range of applications. For example, sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP), a critical ingredient to the performance capabilities of automatic dishwasher detergents (see here for additional information) is also used to preserve the moisture and flavor in shrimp and hams and can be used in mineral processing.

When calcium is added to phosphorus compounds, we get products such as monocalcium phosphate, a leavening agent in baking to make biscuits tender. Dicalcium phosphate is used as a polishing agent in toothpaste, and tricalcium phosphate is the conditioning agent in salt that keeps it flowing freely.

Phosphoric acid is another example of phosphorus derivatives that most of us use every day. Refreshing cola drinks contain phosphoric acid, which adds tartness to their flavor. Should that cola be packaged in a bottle, the bottle may have been cleaned in an alkaline bath containing STPP, and the cap was probably made from sheet metal phosphatized in a phosphoric acid solution bath.

Phosphate products are a significant part of everyday living. In addition to their versatility, government authorities also recognize them as safe for worker exposure and handling and for use in the home. In addition to their versatility, phosphates are recognized by government authorities as safe for worker exposure and handling and for use in the home.
In many water bodies, phosphorus is the limiting nutrient and controlling its level is an important step in preventing eutrophication (see here for additional information).  In most areas, most of the phosphorus comes from the environment itself, and only a fraction (about a third) from consumer products.

There are a few characteristics that define phosphate properties, mainly molecular structure and pH (generally in a 1% solution). These determine the functionality of phosphates that in turn determine how the phosphates are used. They contribute buffering strength, sequestering (or chelating) power, dispersion and absorptive capabilities, and solubility. Phosphates are usually used as compounds of phosphate ions in combination with one or more common elements, such as sodium, calcium, potassium, and aluminum. They also offer benefits as nutrient sources.

Phosphates are classified into several primary groups based on the number of phosphorus (P) atoms. Each of these groups have functional properties ideal for many applications.
Orthophosphates Buffering - detergents, baking
Pyrophosphates Sequestering - water treatment, metal cleaning
Tripolyphosphates Dispersant - meat processing, dish detergent
Polyphosphates Dispersant - kaolin production, processed cheese


Number of P Atoms Ion Usual Name
1 PO4-3 Orthophosphates
2 P2O7-4 Pyrophosphates
3 p3O10-5 Tripolyphosphates
>3 PnO(3n+1)-(n+2) Polyphosphates

Phosphate salts are retrieved from naturally occurring minerals, which are mined, refined, and purified for use in many applications. Phosphoric acid is produced starting with naturally-occurring phosphate ore mined around the world.  As phosphoric acid, it can be combined with other elements such as calcium, potassium and sodium into “salts” of orthophosphates. Depending on the application, the orthophosphates can be used in that form, or converted by heat into the groups of products described above. To give a clear picture of the vast areas of phosphates uses, the following list details many products that contain phosphates or require phosphates during their production.

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