Phosphorus Types Explained

Whether you’re a nerd or an everyday Joe, this is an excellent read for anyone interested in phosphorus and the various forms considered in the wastewater treatment sector.

The goal is to understand the traits and characteristics of each type. Let’s jump right in, shall we?



Phosphorus is a non-metal nutrient that is one of the top 5 main elements of living organisms. It is essential for creating life by forming the sugar-phosphate backbone of DNA and RNA, supporting the energy transfer of cells within the ATP process, contributing to the strength of bones and teeth in vertebrates, and many other biologically important molecules.

It is highly reactive and thus never found as a free element on Earth. Instead, it is primarily found in the phosphate form, discussed in the next section. In whatever form phosphorus may exist, there is estimated to be approximately 6.6×10^21 kg of phosphorus on Earth, core-to-atmosphere. Much of the phosphorus extracted for resources is used for agricultural fertilizer, water softening, and corrosion protection of metals.



Dr. Hennig Brand of Hamburg, Germany, was the first to discover phosphorus in 1669 via experimenting with large amounts of urine.

Yes, super weird but this was 1669 after all. After Brand sun-dried, boiled, mixed, heated and cooled, the urine, the end product was placed in a glass chamber where water was introduced. The result was illuminating pulses created by a reaction between oxygen gas and phosphorus vapor. Brand’s discovery coined the Greek term phosphorus; phos, for “light,” and phorus, for “bearer.”


Pure phosphorus exists in allotropic modifications, which are distinguishable by color: white, red, and black. Each type displays unique properties, as listed below.



As mentioned above, elemental phosphorus does not exist as a free element on Earth. Orthophosphate (or monophosphate) is

  1. the only form of phosphate found in the natural world,

  2. a soluble reactive, and

  3. the most stable type of phosphate

Its simple structure consists of one phosphorus atom at the center, bonded to four oxygen atoms. Therefore, orthophosphate is explicit in denoting the singularity of one phosphate unit.



Phosphate is a salt with an anionic entity. The term may apply to any compound that consists of one or more phosphate units or when at least one phosphate unit is bound to one or more molecules of different species. An exception to this rule is when one or more oxygen atoms have been replaced by other atoms such as hydrogen, sulfur, or fluoride. There are multitudes of possible phosphate formations, and below are just a few examples.

Total Phosphorus (TP)

For wastewater treatment facilities committed to meeting the EPA’s effluent phosphorus standard, it’s crucial to collect concentration values that account for all forms of phosphorus, that is, total phosphorus: inorganic, organic, soluble reactive, soluble non-reactive, colloidal, and particulate.


Now that you know the different types check out our previous blog discussing why removing phosphorus from wastewater is essential.