Gdańsk
South Baltic Gas Forum
5 - 9 September 2011, Gdańsk, Poland

Sulfur

Sulfur is the tenth most common element by mass in the universe, and the fifth most common on Earth. Though sometimes found in pure, native form, sulfur on Earth usually occurs as sulfide and sulfate minerals. Being abundant in native form, sulfur was known in ancient times, being mentioned for its uses in ancient India, ancient Greece, China, and Egypt. In the Bible, sulfur is called brimstone, which means "burning stone". Today, almost all elemental sulfur is produced as a byproduct of removing sulfur-containing contaminants from natural gas and petroleum. The greatest commercial use of the element is the production of sulfuric acid for sulfate and phosphate fertilizers, and other chemical processes. The element sulfur is used in matches, insecticides, and fungicides. Many sulfur compounds are odoriferous, and the smells of odorized natural gas, skunk scent, grapefruit, and garlic are due to organosulfur compounds. Hydrogen sulfide gives the characteristic odor to rotting eggs and other biological processes.
Amorphous or "plastic" sulfur is produced by rapid cooling of molten sulfur´for example, by pouring it into cold water. X-ray crystallography studies show that the amorphous form may have a helical structure with eight atoms per turn. The long coiled polymeric molecules make the brownish substance elastic, and in bulk this form has the feel of crude rubber. This form is metastable at room temperature and gradually reverts to crystalline molecular allotrope, which is no longer elastic. This process happens within a matter of hours to days, but can be rapidly catalyzed.
Sulfur, usually as sulfide, is present in many types of meteorites. Ordinary chondrites contain on average 2.1% sulfur, and carbonaceous chondrites may contain as much as 6.6%. It is normally present as troilite (FeS), but there are exceptions, with carbonaceous chondrites containing free sulfur, sulfates and other sulfur compounds. The distinctive colors of Jupiter's volcanic moon Io are attributed to various forms of molten, solid, and gaseous sulfur.
Organosulfur compounds are responsible for some of the unpleasant odors of decaying organic matter. They are widely known as the odorant in domestic natural gas, garlic odor, and skunk spray. Not all organic sulfur compounds smell unpleasant at all concentrations: the sulfur-containing monoterpenoid (grapefruit mercaptan) in small concentrations is the characteristic scent of grapefruit, but has a generic thiol odor at larger concentrations. Sulfur mustard, a potent vesicant, was used in World War I as a disabling agent.
Early European alchemists gave sulfur a unique alchemical symbol, a triangle at the top of a cross. In traditional skin treatment, elemental sulfur was used (mainly in creams) to alleviate such conditions as scabies, ringworm, psoriasis, eczema, and acne. The mechanism of action is unknown´though elemental sulfur does oxidize slowly to sulfurous acid, which is (through the action of sulfite) a mild reducing and antibacterial agent.

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