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Phosphorus is a poisonous and volatile non-metallic chemical element that when exposed to sunlight or heat in its white form creates red phosphorus. Red phosphorus is less volatile than white phosphorus as its tendency to combust spontaneously is much less than white phosphorus. This allows red phosphorus to be used in multiple applications ranging from household to commercial products.
One of the most well known ways that red phosphorus has been used is on matchboxes. Some matchboxes use a coating of red phosphorous on sandpaper in order to ignite a matchstick. Sulfur and potassium chlorate are placed on the end of the matchstick and rubbed across the red phosphorus coated sandpaper, creating a spark intense enough to light the matchstick on fire.
Red phosphorus can also be found in flare products that consumers and emergency personnel use throughout the United States. Flares are used as signals, whether to get attention during a rescue effort or cordon off a specific area, such as at an accident scene. Red phosphorus can be mixed with a binder in flares to help ignite and sustain the burning of the flare.
Smoke and obscurant devices also sometimes employ the properties of red phosphorous. In this application, red phosphorus is mixed with magnesium or another initiator, as well as a binder to create the device. As the red phosphorus burns, it produces a dense white smoke for use during operations that require a smoke screen.
Red phosphorus can also be used both legally and illegally to create methamphetamine, commonly known as meth. While anhydrous ammonia is often the preferred ingredient for producing meth, areas that do not have regular access to anhydrous ammonia, such as in the Midwest, often substitute red phosphorus during the drug making process, according to the METH Awareness and Prevention Project of South Dakota. Red phosphorus is used as a catalyst to speed up the meth cooking process.
In some applications, red phosphorus can be used as a flame retardant, especially for plastics, according to the Clariant Chemical Company. During the flame retardant process, a 5 to 10 percent solution of red phosphorus can be added to plastics used in applications such as electronics to reduce the chances of the plastic parts igniting.
Chris Sherwood is a professional journalist who after years in the health administration field and writing health and wellness articles turned towards organic sustainable gardening and food education. He now owns and operates an organic-method small farm focusing his research and writing on both organic gardening methods and hydroponics.