Has there ever been a chemical element more menacing than sulfur? This shape shifting substance can spark an explosion, brew a poison gas and concoct smells so horrible to send any nose fleeing. Yet without sulfur there is no life.
Represented by the letter S in the periodic table, sulfur is a non-metallic solid that is one of the few elements to occur in nature in pure form. It is the tenth most abundant element in the universe and about three per cent of the earth’s mass is made up of sulfur (the equivalent of two times the size of our moon).
As a solid and gas, sulfur appears yellow. When melted to a liquid it appears red. And when it burns (historically sulfur has been known as ‘brimstone’ or burning stone) it is with a blue flame.
Sulfur is also the third most abundant element in the human body. It builds and repairs DNA and protects cells from damage that can lead to serious health problems such as cancers. It helps the body break down, absorb and use food. Sulfur even provides strength and hydration to skin, tendons and ligaments.
Sulfur sometimes acts as a source of energy. Deep within dark sulfur spring caves, cave bacteria draw energy from sulfur compounds to make their own food. The walls of the caves are coated with slimy mats of bacteria scientists call ‘snottites.’ These unusual stalactites drip sulfuric acid strong enough to burn skin or eat through clothing.
Sulfur atoms are strongly attracted to other sulfur atoms and when heated they form long chains that give it a plasticity that has been invaluable to industry. In the 19th century, Charles Goodyear added sulfur to rubber tree sap to create a firm material he used to make the first tires. The process was called ‘vulcanisation’ after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.
Sulfur’s power has also been harnessed for more destructive means. It has been used to make gunpowder, pesticides and acids. It has also inadvertently led to such creations as ‘acid rain,’ caused by sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere.
Sulfur or sulphur? Both spellings of the word are right with sulfur being the American spelling and sulphur, the British.
What is with that smell?
Some of the worst smells in the world can be traced back to sulfur even though sulfur itself is odourless. It is when it gets together with other elements to form a compound, that things get pungent! Hydrogen sulfide is responsible for the distinct odour that is rotten egg. It is also the gas that is released when your food is digesting, causing those smelly burps! Mercaptans (composed of carbon, hydrogen, and sulfur) give skunks their defensive stink.
On the island of Java sulfur miners risk their lives for the “devil’s gold. They descend into the bowels of an inactive volcano to chip chunks of sulfur off stalactites, taking great care to avoid toxic yellow gases and electric blue flames.
Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Fall 2022.