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Structure of phosphine

Systematic name Phosphane
Other names Phosphine
Phosphorus hydride
Phosphorated hydrogen
Molecular formula PH3
Molar mass 34.0 g/mol
Appearance Colourless gas
CAS number [7803-51-2]
MSDS Wikisource MSDS
Bulk properties
Density 1.37 kg/m3 (gas at 0 °C)
Solubility Water: 31.2 mg/100 cm3 (17 °C)
Melting point −134 °C (89 K)
Boiling point −88 °C (185 K)
Hazards Highly toxic, flammable

Phosphine is the common name for phosphorus hydride (PH3), also known by the IUPAC name phosphane. It is a colorless, flammable gas with a boiling point of −88 °C at standard pressure. Pure phosphine is odorless, but "technical grade" phosphine has a highly unpleasant odor like garlic or rotting fish, due to the presence of substituted phosphine and diphosphine (P2H4).

Phosphine is highly toxic; it can easily kill in relatively low concentrations. Because of this, the gas is used for pest control by fumigation. For farm use, it is often sold in the form of aluminium phosphide pellets, which yield phosphine on contact with atmospheric water. These pellets also contain other chemicals which evolve ammonia which helps to reduce the potential for spontaneous ignition or explosion of the phosphine gas. They also contain other agents (e.g. methanethiol) to give the gas a detectable garlic smell to help warn against its presence in the atmosphere.

Phosphine is also used as a dopant in the semiconductor industry.


Structure and properties

The PH3 molecule is a trigonal pyramid, i.e. it has C3v symmetry with bond lengths of 1.42 and bond angles of 93.5°. The dipole moment is 0.58 D, which increases with substitution of methyl groups in the series: CH3PH2, 1.10 D; (CH3)2PH, 1.23 D; (CH3)3P, 1.19 D. This contrasts with ammonia, which has a dipole moment of 1.47 D, which decreases with successive methyl substitutions. The low dipole moment and almost orthogonal bond angles lead to the conclusion that in PH3 the P-H bonds are almost entirely pσ(P) – sσ(H) and the lone pair contributes only a little to the molecular orbitals. The high positive chemical shift of the P atom in 31P NMR accords with the conclusion that the lone pair electrons occupy the 3s orbital and so are close to the P atom (Fluck, 1973). This electronic structure leads to a lack of nucleophilicity and an inability to form hydrogen bonds.

The aqueous solubility of PH3 is slight; 0.22 mL of gas / mL water at saturation. Phosphine dissolves more readily in non-polar solvents than in water. It acts as neither an acid nor a base in water. Proton exchange is via a phosphonium (PH4+) ion in acidic solutions and via PH2- at high pH, with equilibribium constants Kb = 4 x 10-28 and Kz = 41.6 x 10-29.


Perhaps because of its strong association with elemental phosphorus, phosphine was once regarded as a gaseous form of the element but Lavoisier (1789) recognised it as a combination of phosphorus with hydrogen by describing it as “hydruyet of phosphorus, or phosphuret of hydrogen”.

Meyer (1891) described the early history of phosphine research thus: "The discovery of phosphuretted hydrogen (PH3) by Gengembre in 1783, and the examination of it by Pelletier (who was the first to prepare it pure), only became fruitful after Davy’s investigations; and the last-named elucidated the composition of this gas, and pointed out its analogy to ammonia, this being emphasised still more sharply by H. Rose later on."

Thnard (1845) used a cold trap to separate diphosphine (P2H4) from phosphine that had been generated from Calcium phosphide, thereby demonstrating that P2H4 is responsible for spontaneous flammability associated with PH3, and also for the characteristic orange/brown colour that can form on surfaces, which is a polymerisation product. He considered diphosphine’s formula to be PH2, and thus an intermediate between elemental phosphorus, the higher polymers, and phosphine. Calcium phosphide (nominally Ca3P2) produces more P2H4 than other phosphides because of the preponderance of P-P bonds in the starting material.


Phosphine may be prepared in a variety of ways[2]. Industrially it can be made by the reaction of white phosphorus with sodium hydroxide, producing sodium hypophosphite as a by-product. It can be made (as described above) by the hydrolysis of a metal phosphide such as aluminium phosphide or calcium phosphide. Pure samples of phosphine, free from P2H4, may be prepared using the action of potassium hydroxide on phosphonium iodide (PH4I).

Related to PH3 is the class of compounds commonly called phosphines. These are alkyl or aryl derivatives of phosphine, just as amines can be regarded as derivatives of ammonia. Common examples include triphenylphosphine ((C6H5)3P) and BINAP, both used as phosphine ligands in metal complexes such as Wilkinson's catalyst. Such phosphines are often present as co-catalysts in reactions such as the Sonogashira coupling.

Phosphine is often confused with phosgene, (COCl2) which has a similar-sounding name but contains no phosphorus.

Use as a fumigant

Phosphine is highly toxic to organisms undergoing oxidative respiration, but is non toxic to organisms kept under low oxygen (<1%) or that can anaerobically respire (i.e. ferment). Because of these characteristics, phosphine is widely used as a fumigant of metabolically dormant stored products such as grain. The toxicity of phosphine kills insect pests that might infest the grain, but does not affect the viability of the dormant grain.

Because continued use of the previously widely used fumigant methyl bromide has been banned under the Montreal Protocol, phosphine is the only widely used, cost effective, rapidly acting fumigant that does not leave residues on the stored product. Given the heavy reliance on phosphine as a means of protecting grain from insect infestation, it is disturbing to note that high levels of resistance toward phosphine have become commonplace in many countries of Asia and in Australia as well. Active research in Australia into the mode of action of phospine and the mechanisms whereby insects acquire resistance is being carried out by the CSIRO in Canberra, QDPI&F in Queensland and the University of Queensland.

External links


  1. E. Fluck, The chemistry of phosphine, Topics in Current Chemistry Vol. 35, 64 pp, 1973.
  2. A.D.F. Toy, The Chemistry of Phosphorus, Pergamon Press, Oxford, UK, 1973.
  3. WHO (World Health Organisation), Phosphine and selected metal phosphides, Environmental Health Criteria. Published under the joint sponsorship of UNEP, ILO and WHO, Geneva, Vol. 73, 100 pp,

nl:Fosfine fr:Phosphine ja:リン化水素 nn:Fosfin pl:Fosforowodór zh:磷化氢


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