How Pee (Yes, Pee) Changed the Future of Mankind


Your pee might be worth its weight in gold—at least that’s what the alchemists thought, according to this new video from the American Chemical Society.

Alchemists—basically 17th-century proto-scientists who tried to “transmute” various substances into precious metals—decided that the relatively golden color of their urine was connected to the same pigment in gold. So they set out to find a connection, boiling down urine (literally) and trying various “experiments” to see what they could find.

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They didn’t arrive at gold, but their “research” did produce another discovery: A white, powdery substance that came to be known as phosphorous.

Phosphorous—the 13th element ever found—played a major role in significant advances in medicine, dyes, and even the world’s first matches, as the video explains. So yeah, your pee comes in different colors and smells—but it’s also, in a manner of speaking, an ingredient in several scientific discoveries. Here are several of the most important ones:

Matches: Phosphorous is a flammable element and, in certain forms, dangerously reactive. An early chemist named Robert Boyle discovered its explosive properties after dragging a splinter of wood through a phosphorous-coated piece of paper. The same basic technology—phosphorous plus friction—exists in matches today.

Fertilizer: That stuff that smells and helps your plants grow? Yes, that contains phosphorous, which is an essential nutrient for plant growth.

Soft Drinks: Phosphorous can be broken down into phosphoric acid, giving carbonated beverages their fizziness and syrupy consistency.
But if phosphoric acid is consumed in abnormal amounts, may lead to lower bone density.

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Medicine: Keeping your pearly whites clean? That involves the application of phosphoric acid, which is used in dentistry to clean and roughen the surfaces of teeth. It eliminates plaque and is also a strong bonding agent. 

Sanitizing Agents: Phosphoric acid is not only an active ingredient in many household cleaners—it helps keep windows and countertops clean—but also an effective rust remover for metals damaged by water.

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