03 Mar 10 interesting facts about Sulphur
Whilst here at Chemworth, we deal with Sulphur everyday, we thought we would share some interesting facts about the chemical that everyone needs but not everyone knows much about. Chemworth have proudly been supporting the teaching and learning programme in many local school and education outlets over the past few years.
Here are 10 interesting facts about Sulphur:
- Sulphur is an essential element for life. It’s found in amino acids (cysteine and methionine) and proteins. Sulphur compounds are why onions make you cry, why asparagus gives urine a weird odor, why garlic has a distinctive aroma, and why rotten eggs smell so horrible.
- Although many Sulphur compounds have a strong smell, the pure element is odorless. Sulphur compounds also affect your sense of smell. For example, hydrogen sulfide (H2S, the culprit behind the rotten egg odor) actually deadens the sense of smell, so the odor is very strong at first and then vanishes. This is unfortunate because hydrogen sulfide is a toxic and potentially deadly gas. Elemental Sulphur is considered nontoxic.
- Mankind has known about Sulphur since ancient times. The element, also known as brimstone, primarily comes from volcanoes. While most chemical elements occur only in compounds, Sulphur is one of relatively few elements that occur in pure form.
- At room temperature and pressure, Sulphur is a yellow solid. It’s usually seen as a powder, but it forms crystals, too. One interesting feature of the crystals is that they spontaneously change shape according to temperature. To observe the transition, melt Sulphur, allow it to cool until it crystallizes, and observe the crystal shape over time.
- Were you surprised you could crystallize Sulphur simply by cooling the melted powder? This is a common method of growing metal crystals. While Sulphur is a nonmetal, like metals it won’t readily dissolve in water or other solvents (although it will dissolve in carbon disulfide). If you tried the crystal project, another surprise might have been the color of Sulphur liquid when you heated the powder. Liquid Sulphur can appear blood-red. Volcanoes that spew molten Sulphur display another interesting feature of the element: It burns with a blue flame from the Sulphur dioxide that is produced. Volcanoes with Sulphur appear to run with blue lava.
- How you spell the name of element number 16 likely depends on where and when you grew up. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) adopted the Sulphur spelling in 1990, as did the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1992. Up to this point, the spelling was sulphur in Britain and in countries using the Roman languages. The original spelling was the Latin word Sulphur, which was Hellenized to sulphur. Here at Chemworth, we are based in the UK and use the English spelling sulphur.
- Sulphur has many uses. It’s a component of gunpowder and is believed to have been used in the ancient flamethrower weapon called Greek Fire. It’s a key component of Sulphuric acid, which is used in labs and in making other chemicals. It’s found in the antibiotic penicillin and is used for fumigation against diseases and pests. Sulphur is a component of fertilizers and also pharmaceuticals.
- Sulphur is created as part of the alpha process in massive stars. It is the 10th most abundant element in the universe. It’s found in meteorites and on Earth mainly near volcanoes and hot springs. The abundance of the element is higher in the core than in the Earth’s crust. It’s estimated there is enough Sulphur on Earth to make two bodies the size of the Moon. Common minerals that contain Sulphur include pyrite or fool’s gold (iron sulfide), cinnabar (mercury sulfide), galena (lead sulfide), and gypsum (calcium sulfate).
- Some organisms are able to use Sulphur compounds as an energy source. An example are cave bacteria, which produce special stalactites called snottites that drip Sulphuric acid. The acid is sufficiently concentrated that it can burn skin and eat holes through clothes if you stand beneath the minerals. Natural dissolution of minerals by the acid carves out new caves.
- Although people always knew about Sulphur, it wasn’t recognized until later as an element (except by alchemists, who also considered fire and earth elements). It was 1777 when Antoine Lavoisier provided convincing evidence that the substance was indeed its own unique element, worthy of a place on the periodic table. The element has oxidation states ranging from -2 to +6, allowing it to form compounds with all the other elements except the noble gases.