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Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Linda Bohling
Surveying Sulfur- Element 16
Sulfur or Sulphur? Which way is it spelled? I live in Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona and was surprised to see the different spelling for sulfur in my geology class. This spelling difference piqued my interest in sulfur. Here is where I began to research. First, I found that the Old French word for sulfur is “soufre”, which means “to burn” As I looked further I found that the name of this element may have been derived from the Arabic word “sufra” which means “yellow” or from the sanskirt “shulbari” which means “enemy of copper”. It seems that the word has been spelled both sulphur and sulfur. I learned that in 1990 the IUPAC adopted the spelling “sulfur”, so I guess my questions about the spelling have been answered. The IUPAC is the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists. “Sulphur” was the way it was spelled in countries that used British English.
Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, was credited with the first recognition of the element of sulfur in 1789 when he made a list of the elements and included sulfur in it. By the 1800’s, the wealth of a country was assessed by how much sulfur was found there. A German chemist said in 1843, “we can understand why the English government should have resolved to resort to war with Naples (in 1839) in order to abolish the sulfur monopoly….” Sulfur appears to have been important enough to start a war.
What does sulfur look like? Elemental sulfur is yellow, odorless, brittle, and nonmetallic and occurs as a free element or combined with other elements. It is found in three main forms: crystals, masses, and crusts. It is also found as gas and liquid.
Here are two photos of sulfur:
Sulfur crystals from Michigan Drusy-Sulfur from Mexico
Photo by R. Weller/Cochise College
by R. Weller/Cochise College
So where is sulfur found? It is found around the world in many places. Some of these places are: Sicily, Mexico, Texas, Michigan, and Bolivia. It is found as iron pyrites, galena, sphalerite, cinnabar, stibnite, gypsum, Epsom salts, celestite, barite, etc. It is also found in natural gas and petroleum crude oil. Sulfur is a product of volcanism, associated with hot springs, and comes from the cap rock of underground salt domes. This is where most of the commercial production comes from. They drill into the sulfur and dissolve it with hot water. The Texas and Louisiana coasts and offshore onto the continental shelf are where you will find much sulfur.
What are the uses for this yellow element? Sulfur is a vital element for all forms of life. It is a component of two amino acids. These are cysteine and methionine. An article from the University of Maryland Medical Center explains that a form of sulfur called “MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) is found in protein-rich foods such as eggs, meat, poultry, fish, and legumes. Other good sources include: garlic, onions, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, kale, and wheat germ.” The UMC article also said that “most people get all they need from their diet” so there is no need for supplementation of sulfur. One of the student papers on the Roger Weller website (“Medical Minerals” by Aimee Valdez, 2008) says that “Sulfur is found in your hair, nails and skin. Sulfur is used to detoxify the body. It also assists the immune system to help fight the effects of aging and age related illness such as arthritis. Sulfur is said to clean the blood and help protect against toxic build up in the body.” What is not to like about that?
Besides the use of sulfur in the human body, sulfur is used in the making of cellophane and rayon, to vulcanize rubber, to make gun powder, to make fireworks, and in the manufacturing of insecticides and pharmaceuticals. The earliest use of sulfur was in cave paintings. It began to be used in matches because it is highly flammable when in powder form. It is used to manufacture sulfuric acid. In fact, 75% of the U.S. sulfur is used for this. Sixty five percent of this sulfuric acid is produced for agricultural fertilizers. A long list of other uses is given as: dyes, alcohols, plastics, rubber, ether, glue, film, explosives, drugs, paints, food containers, wood preservatives, soaps & detergents, pharmaceutical products, petroleum products, pulp & paper, and lead-acid storage batteries.
Since so much sulfur is used as sulfuric acid, we need to ask how this is made. Sulfuric acid is made by burning sulfur or hydrogen sulfide, or by roasting pyrite (iron sulfide) or other metal sulfides prior to smelting. Don’t try this at home. It sounds pretty complicated and dangerous if you don’t do it exactly right.
While elemental sulfur is considered nontoxic or of low toxicity, compounds produced by burning are very toxic. Sulfur dioxide irritates the bronchial tubes and causes them to produce excess mucus. The symptoms of chronic bronchitis are also worsened by high concentrations of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants in the air. The smell produced is often likened to that of rotten eggs. The irritation caused to the throat and the eyes are most unpleasant and can be damaging. Exposure to less than 4 ppm brings about the smell and the eye irritation. Sulfur dioxide is not kind to the respiratory system, the eyes, the teeth, or the skin. It has detrimental effects for such things as asthma. It destroys tissue due to its severe dehydrating action. If 20 ppm exposure lasts for more than a minute, it will cause severe injury to the nerves of the eyes. If there is exposure to 700 ppm, breathing will stop and death will result if there is not a quick rescue. Brain damage may result from this exposure. There is good reason to avoid these damaging possibilities.
Has sulfur dioxide pollution ever been a problem in Cochise County, Arizona? Yes, but I learned from the EPA that there have been no violations since 1987 in the Douglas AZ area (25 miles from my house). The primary source of sulfur dioxide pollution in the Douglas area was the Phelps Dodge Reduction Works smelter which ceased operation in 1987 and was dismantled in 1991. The minerals from the Bisbee mines were brought to the smelter and the outpouring from the smokestacks was not pleasant for valley residents. It seems that sulfur dioxide was the problem.
What about the pollution problem from diesel fuel emissions? Evidently emissions went from 550 ppm down to 15 ppm since changes were made to diesel fuel in October 2006. Engines now have particulate filters which clean the air as they drive and there is hope that this will make a 90% reduction of diesel emissions of sulfur by 2030. The health benefits for those with respiratory illnesses are significant. Those living in areas of high traffic might want to be aware of these facts.
Are there any other uses for sulfur? Gardeners know about sulfur too! It plays a part in lowering the PH in soil. The gardeners talked about adding “sulfur and gypsum to the garden: Killing two birds with one stone.” (Desert Dreamer 9/21/05) It seems that if you add it to caliche holes (along with compost) and then add lots of water and lots of time, then you MIGHT be able to grow a garden in Arizona soil. Maybe I should try it. My yard seems to be of this quality.
There is another place that I found sulfur mentioned. It was reported to have been known to the “ancients” and is referred to in the Bible many times. A place of torment is said to be the “fiery lake of burning sulfur”. It is where the devil, the beast and the false prophet will be thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. In Revelation 21:8, it says that “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” These sentences come from the last book in the Bible called Revelation (of Jesus Christ). This would be the “bad news” part for anyone who chooses not to accept the finished work of God’s son, Jesus Christ, on the cross as payment for their penalty of sin. This is certainly something to ponder.
Something else I came across in my exploring was a list of words that rhyme with sulfur, so I decided to end this report with a poem…just for fun.
In geology, my subject is sulfur, so I will try to offer
To students and the scoffer just what I might proffer …about sulfur.
I’m not a crystallographer or even a stenographer
Not a puffer or a duffer and certainly not a bluffer….about sulfur.
It’s yellow and your sniffer can certainly suffer
If you choose to buffer #16….the sulfur. Yes, the sulfur.
If you choose to be a laugher and think that you can differ
With this element named sulfur, you’re wrong, you might suffer…with sulfur.
The burning of sulfur will challenge a snuffer
I am not a spoofer. Listen, I’m not a bluffer…about sulfur.
So even if Bonhoeffer or the evil one, Lucifer
Became a philosopher about sulfur, ….yes sulfur.
They’d both have to offer or at least certainly proffer
That the element sulfur will suffer the sniffer…oh, yeah, sulfur.
The eyes and nose of the sniffer will certainly not differ
In terms of the sulfur there’ll not be much laughter…about sulfur
So in dealing with sulfur, be cautious & not a scoffer
Not a spoofer or loafer, but one with a big snuffer….for sulfur.
“Just in case” it decides to burn.
Ehrlich, Steven D. NMD. “Sulfur.” University of Maryland Medical Center. 11 June 2011.
University of Maryland Medical System. 17 Nov 2011. Retrieved at:
Periodic Table of Elements:
Plummer/McGeary. Physical Geology . Dubuque, Iowa: Wm D. Brown Publishers, 1985. P.435-436, 454
“Sulfur.” Chemicool Periodic Table.
Chemicool.com. 16 May 2011.
Thompson, Frank Charles, D.D., Ph.D. The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible - New International Version.
Indianapolis, IN & Grand Rapids, MI: The B.B. Kirkbride Bible Company, Inc. and The Zondervan Corporation. 1983.
Valdez, Aimee. “Minerals in the Medical Field.” Student Papers in