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Sulfur: The Element

Sulfur: The Element

Sulfur is a chemical substance that was known to humans since ancient times. Read on to know more about the properties and utilities of this element ...
Bidisha Mukherjee
Sulfur is a non-metallic chemical element. Traditionally, many countries spelled it as 'Sulphur', but in the US it is denoted as 'Sulfur'. Now, the IUPAC has also adopted the American spelling of the element. In ancient times, it was commonly known as brimstone. It is chemically represented as S. Its atomic number is 16, and its atomic weight is 32.06.


The common method used for the extraction of Sulfur from its minerals is known as Frasch process. In this process, three concentric pipes are inserted into the deposits of the mineral. Superheated water is poured into the outer pipe that helps to melt the Sulfur. Hot compressed air is filled inside the innermost pipe which facilitates the creation of foam. Due to the high pressure created by the compressed air, the foam comes out through the central pipe. Sulfur obtained by this method is 99.5 percent pure, and does not need any distillation.


Normally, Sulfur is found in the solid state with a brilliant yellow color. It smells like safety matches. It is a soft substance, but does not dissolve in water. However, it is completely soluble in Carbon disulfide, and is slightly soluble in some organic solvents like Benzene and Toluene. When it burns in air, it gives a blue flame, and forms Sulfur dioxide gas. Sulfur reacts with most elements to form a stable compound. It however, does not react with the noble gases.

Solid Sulfur is found in a crown-shaped cyclic structure with S8 molecules. It is found in different shapes in its crystalline form. Rhombic, and monoclinic are the most common forms of crystalline Sulfur. The most unique property of this element is that its viscosity in the molten state increases when the temperature goes above 200° C. This happens because of the formation of polymer molecules of the element. At a much higher temperature though, the molecules are depolymerized, and the viscosity decreases.


Sulfur is essential for the production of a lot of chemical substances. One such chemical is Sulfuric acid, which is used on a large scale in a lot of industries. The element also readily reacts with Methane to produce Carbon disulfide which is useful for the production of Rayon.

It is also used in the manufacturing of detergents, insecticides, fungicides, safety matches, and gunpowder. It can act as a preservative, and is mostly used for preserving dry fruits.

One of the most important application of Sulfur is in the form of fertilizers. It is a major nutrient for the plants, and is required for their overall growth, formation of root nodules, and protection of plants from various diseases.

It is an indispensable component for all living cells. It is a constituent in Cysteine, and Methionine, two very important Amino acids in plants and animals alike. Sulfur is an important component for many creams that are used for the treatment of eczema, psoriasis, acne, etc.

Hazardous Effects

There are some compounds of Sulfur which are hazardous, and should be very carefully handled. Hydrogen sulfide is highly toxic, and can cause death. When Sulfur dioxide is used as a food additive, it should only be used in small quantities, or it can cause damage to the eyes, lungs, and other tissues.

Burning of fossil fuel releases Sulfur dioxide, which, on reaction with water, and oxygen present in the air produces Sulfuric acid. The acid thus formed leads to acid rain which causes contamination of the soil, and also pollutes the water.

Sulfur has a number of uses, and is a key ingredient in a lot of industries. However, a few necessary precautionary measures need to be taken to control the ill-effects of some of its compounds.