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Sulfur (play /ˈsʌlfər/ SUL-fər) or sulphur (British English; see spelling below) is a chemical element with symbol S and atomic number 16. It is an abundant, multivalent non-metal. Under normal conditions, sulfur atoms form cyclic octatomic molecules with chemical formula S8. Elemental sulfur is a bright yellow crystalline solid when at room temperature. Chemically, sulfur can react as either an oxidant or reducing agent. It oxidizes most metals and several nonmetals, including carbon, which leads to its negative charge in most organosulfur compounds, but it reduces several strong oxidants, such as oxygen and fluorine. It is also the lightest element to easily produce stable exceptions to the octet rule.

Sulfur occurs naturally as the pure element (native sulfur) and as sulfide and sulfate minerals. Elemental sulfur crystals are commonly sought after by mineral collectors for their brightly colored polyhedron shapes. Being abundant in native form, sulfur was known in ancient times, mentioned for its uses in ancient Greece, China and Egypt. Fumes from burning sulfur were used as fumigants, and sulfur-containing medicinal mixtures were used as balms and antiparasitics. Sulfur is referenced in the Bible as brimstone (burn stone) in English, with this name still used in several nonscientific tomes.[1] It was needed to make the best quality of black gunpowder. In 1777, Antoine Lavoisier helped convince the scientific community that sulfur was a basic element, rather than a compound.

Elemental sulfur was once extracted from salt domes where it sometimes occurs in nearly pure form, but this method has been obsolete since the late 20th century. Today, almost all elemental sulfur is produced as a byproduct of removing sulfur-containing contaminants from natural gas and petroleum. The element's commercial uses are primarily in fertilizers, because of the relatively high requirement of plants for it, and in the manufacture of sulfuric acid, a primary industrial chemical. Other well-known uses for the element are in matches, insecticides and fungicides. Many sulfur compounds are odiferous, and the smell of odorized natural gas, skunk scent, grapefruit, and garlic is due to sulfur compounds. Hydrogen sulfide produced by living organisms imparts the characteristic odor to rotting eggs and other biological processes.

Sulfur is an essential element for all life, and is widely used in biochemical processes. In metabolic reactions, sulfur compounds serve as both fuels and respiratory (oxygen-alternative) materials for simple organisms. Sulfur in organic form is present in the vitamins biotin and thiamine, the latter being named for the Greek word for sulfur. Sulfur is an important part of many enzymes and in antioxidant molecules like glutathione and thioredoxin. Organically bonded sulfur is a component of all proteins, as the amino acids cysteine and methionine. Disulfide bonds are largely responsible for the mechanical strength and insolubility of the protein keratin, found in outer skin, hair, and feathers, and the element contributes to their pungent odor when burned.




Pharmeceutical container for sulfur from the first half of the 20th century. From the Museo del Objeto del Objeto collection

Being abundantly available in native form, sulfur (Latin sulphur) was known in ancient times and is referred to in the Torah (Genesis). English translations of the Bible commonly referred to burning sulfur as "brimstone", giving rise to the name of 'fire-and-brimstone' sermons, in which listeners are reminded of the fate of eternal damnation that await the unbelieving and unrepentant. It is from this part of the Bible that Hell is implied to "smell of sulfur" (likely due to its association with volcanic activity). According to the Ebers Papyrus, a sulfur ointment was used in ancient Egypt to treat granular eyelids. Sulfur was used for fumigation in preclassical Greece;[2] this is mentioned in the Odyssey.[3] Pliny the Elder discusses sulfur in book 35 of his Natural History, saying that its best-known source is the island of Melos. He mentions its use for fumigation, medicine, and bleaching cloth.[4]

A natural form of sulfur known as shiliuhuang was known in China since the 6th century BC and found in Hanzhong.[5] By the 3rd century, the Chinese discovered that sulfur could be extracted from pyrite.[5] Chinese Daoists were interested in sulfur's flammability and its reactivity with certain metals, yet its earliest practical uses were found in traditional Chinese medicine.[5] A Song Dynasty military treatise of 1044 AD described different formulas for Chinese black powder, which is a mixture of potassium nitrate (Template:Chem), charcoal, and sulfur.

Early alchemists gave sulfur its own alchemical symbol, a triangle at the top of a cross. In traditional skin treatment before the modern era of scientific medicine, elemental sulfur was used, mainly in creams, to alleviate conditions such as scabies, ringworm, psoriasis, eczema, and acne. The mechanism of action is unknown—though elemental sulfur does oxidize slowly to sulfurous acid, which in turn (through the action of sulfite) acts as a mild reducing and antibacterial agent.[6][7][8]


  1. Greenwood, N. N.; & Earnshaw, A. (1997). Chemistry of the Elements (2nd Edn.), Oxford:Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 0-7506-3365-4.
  2. Rapp, George Robert (2009-02-04). Archaeomineralogy. p. 242. ISBN 978-3-540-78593-4. 
  3. ''Odyssey'', book 22, lines 480–495. Retrieved on 2012-08-16.
  4. Pliny the Elder on science and technology, John F. Healy, Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-19-814687-6 pp. 247–249.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Zhang, Yunming (1986). "The History of Science Society: Ancient Chinese Sulfur Manufacturing Processes". Isis 77 (3): 487. doi:10.1086/354207. 
  6. Lin, A. N.; Reimer, R. J.; Carter, D. M. (1988). "Sulfur revisited". Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 18 (3): 553–558. doi:10.1016/S0190-9622(88)70079-1. PMID 2450900. 
  7. Maibach, HI; Surber, C.; Orkin, M. (1990). "Sulfur revisited". Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 23 (1): 154–156. doi:10.1016/S0190-9622(08)81225-X. PMID 2365870. 
  8. Gupta, A. K.; Nicol, K. (2004). "The use of sulfur in dermatology". Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD 3 (4): 427–31. PMID 15303787. 

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