Sulfur burns with a blue flame concomitant with formation of sulfur dioxide, notable for its peculiar suffocating odor. Sulfur is insoluble in water but soluble in carbon disulfide and, to a lesser extent, in other nonpolar organic solvents, such as benzene and toluene. The first and the second ionization energies of sulfur are 999.6 and 2252 kJ·mol−1, respectively. Despite such figures, S2+ is rare, S4, 6+ being more common. The fourth and sixth ionization energies are 4556 and 8495.8 kJ·mol−1, the magnitude of the figures caused by electron transfer between orbitals; these states are only stable with strong oxidants as fluorine, oxygen, and chlorine.
Picture 2. The structure of the cyclooctasulfur molecule, S8.
Sulfur forms over 30 solid allotropes, more than any other element. Besides S8, several other rings are known. Removing one atom from the crown gives S7, which is more deeply yellow than S8. HPLCanalysis of "elemental sulfur" reveals an equilibrium mixture of mainly S8, but with S7 and small amounts of S6. Larger rings have been prepared, including S12 and S18.
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 has 25 known isotopes, four of which are stable: 32S (95.02%), 33S (0.75%), 34S (4.21%), and 36S (0.02%). Other than 35S, with a half-life of 87 days and formed in cosmic ray spallation of 40Ar, the radioactive isotopes of sulfur have half-lives less than 170 minutes.
When sulfide minerals are precipitated, isotopic equilibration among solids and liquid may cause small differences in the δS-34 values of co-genetic minerals. The differences between minerals can be used to estimate the temperature of equilibration. The δC-13 and δS-34 of coexisting carbonate minerals and sulfides can be used to determine the pH and oxygen fugacity of the ore-bearing fluid during ore formation.
In most forest ecosystems, sulfate is derived mostly from the atmosphere; weathering of ore minerals and evaporites contribute some sulfur. Sulfur with a distinctive isotopic composition has been used to identify pollution sources, and enriched sulfur has been added as a tracer in hydrologic studies. Differences in the natural abundances can be used in systems where there is sufficient variation in the 34S of ecosystem components. Rocky Mountain lakes thought to be dominated by atmospheric sources of sulfate have been found to have different δ34S values from lakes believed to be dominated by watershed sources of sulfate.
Table 2. Naturally Occurring Isotopes
Picture 3. Most of the yellow and orange hues of Ioare due to elemental sulfur and sulfur compounds, produced by active volcanoes.
Picture 4. Native sulfur crystals
Picture 5. A man carrying sulfur blocks fromKawah Ijen, a volcano in East Java, Indonesia, 2009
32S is created inside massive stars, at a depth where the temperature exceeds 2.5×109 K, by the fusion of one nucleus of silicon plus one nucleus of helium. As this is part of the alpha process that produces elements in abundance, sulfur is the 10th most common element in the universe.
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.
On Earth, elemental sulfur can be found near hot springs and volcanic regions in many parts of the world, especially along the Pacific Ring of Fire; such volcanic deposits are currently mined in Indonesia, Chile, and Japan. Such deposits are polycrystalline, with the largest documented single crystal measuring 22×16×11 cm. Historically, Sicily was a large source of sulfur in the Industrial Revolution.
Significant deposits of elemental sulfur, believed to have been (and are still being) synthesised by anaerobic bacteria on sulfate minerals like gypsum, exist in salt domes along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and in evaporites in eastern Europe and western Asia. Native sulfur may be produced by geological processes alone. Fossil-based sulfur deposits from salt domes have until recently been the basis for commercial production in the United States, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine. Currently, commercial production is still carried out in the Osiek mine in Poland. Such sources are now of secondary commercial importance, and most are no longer worked.
Common naturally occurring sulfur compounds include the sulfide minerals, such as pyrite (iron sulfide), cinnabar (mercury sulfide), galena (lead sulfide),sphalerite (zinc sulfide) and stibnite (antimony sulfide); and the sulfates, such as gypsum (calcium sulfate), alunite (potassium aluminium sulfate), andbarite (barium sulfate). On Earth, just as upon Jupiter's moon Io, elemental sulfur occurs naturally in volcanic emissions, including emissions fromhydrothermal vents.
Sulfur may be found by itself and historically was usually obtained in this way, while pyrite has been a source of sulfur via sulfuric acid. In volcanic regions in Sicily, in ancient times, it was found on the surface of the Earth, and the "Sicilian process" was used: sulfur deposits were piled and stacked in brick kilns built on sloping hillsides, with airspaces between them. Then, some sulfur was pulverized, spread over the stacked ore and ignited, causing the free sulfur to melt down the hills.
Eventually the surface-borne deposits played out, and miners excavated veins that ultimately dotted the Sicilian landscape with labyrinthine mines. Mining was unmechanized and labor-intensive, with pickmen freeing the ore from the rock, and mine-boys orcarusi carrying baskets of ore to the surface, often through a mile or more of tunnels. Once the ore was at the surface, it was reduced and extracted in smelting ovens. The conditions in Sicilian sulfur mines were horrific, prompting Booker T. Washington to write "I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulphur mine in Sicily is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.". The plight of the carusi is a secondary theme in the historical novella The Lady of the Wheel, by Angelo F. Coniglio.
Today's sulfur production is as a side product of other industrial processes such as oil refining; in these processes, sulfur often occurs as undesired or detrimental compounds that are extracted and converted to elemental sulfur. As a mineral, native sulfur under salt domes is thought to be a fossil mineral resource, produced by the action of ancient bacteria on sulfate deposits. It was removed from such salt-dome mines mainly by the Frasch process. In this method, superheated water was pumped into a native sulfur deposit to melt the sulfur, and then compressed air returned the 99.5% pure melted product to the surface. Throughout the 20th century this procedure produced elemental sulfur that required no further purification. However, due to a limited number of such sulfur deposits and the high cost of working them, this process for mining sulfur has not been employed in a major way anywhere in the world since 2002.
Today, sulfur is produced from petroleum, natural gas, and related fossil resources, from which it is obtained mainly as hydrogen sulfide. Organosulfur compounds, undesirable impurities in petroleum, may be upgraded by subjecting them to hydrodesulfurization, which cleaves the C–S bonds:
R-S-R + 2 H2 → 2 RH + H2S
The resulting hydrogen sulfide from this process, and also as it occurs in natural gas, is converted into elemental sulfur by the Claus process. This process entails oxidation of some hydrogen sulfide to sulfur dioxide and then the comproportionation of the two:
3 O2 + 2 H2S → 2 SO2 + 2 H2O
SO2 + 2 H2S → 3 S + 2 H2O
Owing to the high sulfur content of the Athabasca Oil Sands, stockpiles of elemental sulfur from this process now exist throughout Alberta, Canada. Another way of storing sulfur is as a binder for concrete, the resulting product having many desirable properties.
The world production of sulfur in 2011 amounted to 69 million tonnes (Mt), with more than 15 countries contributing more than 1 Mt each. Countries producing more than 5 Mt are China (9.6), US (8.8), Canada (7.1) and Russia (7.1). While the production has been slowly increasing from 1900 to 2010, the price was much less stable, especially in the 1980s and around 2010.