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 and described it as phosphure d'hydrogène (phosphide of hydrogen).
In 1844, Paul Thénard, son of the French chemist Louis Jacques Thénard, used a cold trap to separate diphosphine 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 color 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.
PH3 is a trigonal pyramidal molecule with C3v molecular symmetry. The length of the P-H bond is 1.42 Å, the H-P-H bond angles are 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. In contrast, the dipole moments of amines decrease with substitution, starting with ammonia, which has a dipole moment of 1.47 D. 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 phosphorus 3s orbital contributes little to the bonding between phosphorus and hydrogen in this molecule. For this reason, the lone pair on phosphorus may be regarded as predominantly formed by the 3s orbital of phosphorus. The upfield chemical shift of the phosphorus atom in the 31P NMR spectrum accords with the conclusion that the lone pair electrons occupy the 3s orbital (Fluck, 1973). This electronic structure leads to a lack of nucleophilicity and an ability to form only weak hydrogen bonds.