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Researchers Develop an Alternative Method for Transforming White Phosphorus

Chemists from the Technical University of Dresden have devised a new, more environmentally friendly method for synthesizing a variety of vital common compounds from white phosphorous. In the chemical sector, the novel method has great potential to help build innovative, resource-efficient processes.

Researchers Develop an Alternative Method for Transforming White Phosphorus.
TUD chemists have succeeded in specifically converting white phosphorus (P4) into an alternative and much less problematic P intermediate reagent. Image Credit: Technical University of Dresden

The remarkable findings, which were the result of more than a decade of hard research, were recently published in the prestigious journal “Nature Chemistry.”

The chemical element phosphorous (P) is an important component of all biological life and a function-giving component of a wide range of items, including medicines, food and fertilizers. Phosphorus is only found in nature in the form of phosphate in the earth’s crust. Continental reserves, on the other hand, are finite and are expected to last for only a few more decades.

Phosphates are transformed into white phosphorus for industrial application through arduous chemical processes. White phosphorus, along with red, black and violet phosphorus, is the most significant modification of the element in terms of industry, and it remains an indispensable starting place for the yield of many pharmaceuticals, fire retardants, battery electrolytes, herbicides and other phosphorus fine chemicals.

The white phosphorus is usually transformed into phosphorus trichloride (PCl3), a caustic and toxic liquid that is of prime significance for the chemical industry as a large-scale industrial intermediary, for the manufacturing of phosphorus-containing common chemicals. However, the manufacturing and use of PCl3, which has been the only option until now, is extremely difficult.

Professor Jan J. Weigand of the Technical University of Dresden and his team have now succeeded in transforming white phosphorus (P4) into a less troublesome phosphorus intermediate reagent. The use of chlorine gas can be fully avoided in this method. Rather, the chemicals used in the conversion of white phosphorus are recyclable.

Economic factors still stand in the way of industrial application of the process, however, a rethink is currently taking place here due to necessary, more sustainable aspects in the chemical industry. The more resource-conserving and efficient use of finite raw materials and the development of sustainable processes in many areas of chemistry are of the utmost importance.

Dr. Kai Schwedtmann, Study First Author, Technical University of Dresden

This work is a decisive breakthrough in phosphorus chemistry and of great importance for the further development of more sustainable and environmentally friendly processes,” adds Dr. Schwedtmann.

Professor Weigand and his team are currently working on new ideas to eliminate the requirement for white phosphorus or PCl3 in the production of medicines, fire retardants, battery electrolytes, herbicides and other phosphorus fine chemicals.

To meet the greatest challenges of our time, a rethink must also take place in the chemical industry. We want to make a small contribution to this with our research by developing a “blueprint” for more modern and more sustainable phosphorus chemistry.

Jan J. Weigand, Professor, Technical University of Dresden

Journal Reference:

Donath, M., et al. (2022) Direct conversion of white phosphorus to versatile phosphorus transfer reagents via oxidative onioation. Nature Chemistry.


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