6 facts about phosphine, the compound that indicates life on Venus

Hyperaxion September 16, 2020 1:01 am

Phosphine is composed of three hydrogen atoms and one phosphorus atom. The compound is widely used in agriculture for pest control.

Suddenly, a chemical compound known as phosphine has gained worldwide fame.

That’s because it was detected on the planet Venus – and that could indicate the existence of extraterrestrial life.

To help you understand what this compound is, we have prepared a list of important information about it.

1. Chemical properties

Phosphine is another name for phosphorus hydride (PH3), a molecule composed of three hydrogen atoms and one phosphorus atom.

Its melting and boiling points are -133.8°C and -87.7°C, respectively, and it is soluble in water.

2. What does it smell like?

In its free form, it is a colorless gas that stinks a lot – scientists compare the odor to that of rotten fish or garlic.

3. Is it dangerous?

In large amounts, phosphine is toxic and dangerous, according to the CDC, and can be detrimental to health.

In addition, the material is highly flammable and can burn upon contact with air.

4. How is it formed?

Phosphine is formed by the action of a strong base or hot water on white phosphorus or by the reaction of water with calcium phosphide (Ca3P2).

5. Why is it associated with life?

Its presence is associated with life because, until today, the only known process capable of generating phosphine naturally occurs through anaerobic microorganisms (which do not need oxygen to survive).

“Anywhere where there’s no oxygen has phosphine, like swamps and marshlands and lake sediments and the farts and intestines of everything,” said Clara Sousa-Silva, an expert on the subject in a statement to MIT News published in 2019.

“Suddenly this all made sense: It’s a really toxic molecule for anything that likes oxygen. But for life that doesn’t like oxygen, it seems to be a very useful molecule.”

6. Industrial uses

Phosphine can also be produced artificially, that is, in the laboratory.

It is widely used in industry, especially in semiconductors in the electronics sector and pesticides for use in agriculture.

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