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What is the chemical composition of a phosphate?

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Quick Answer

Often misused or misunderstood, most basically a phosphate is a polyatomic ion with the molecular formula O4P-3; what this means in terms of chemical composition is that a central phosphorus atom is surrounded by 4 oxygen atoms in a tetrahedral pattern, while the phosphate ion carries a negative 3 charge.

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The chemical structure of a basic phosphate ion (in particular the 3 negatively charged oxygen atoms that readily form ionic bonds) makes it extremely receptive to forming bonds with other atoms and chemicals. This ability to readily form relatively strong molecular bonds makes it an important molecule in both inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry. As an inorganic salt phosphates are widely used to form various chemicals or are used directly in product recipes. Such chemicals are used in meat processing, baking powder, vitamins, dish soap, processed cheese, and much more. In organic chemistry it forms the base of organophosphates such as DNA and RNA, as well as herbicides, insecticides, and nerve agents. Because of this, organophosphates represent both great potential for scientific & health communities, but also have the potential to be very dangerous if not handled and respected properly. Its abundance and multitude of uses has seen phosphates become a staple molecule in the modern world.

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