Sulfur is a nonmetallic chemical element which appears in numerous forms and compounds. It is used extensively in many industries, as are its ions, such as sulfides and sulfates. In addition to having industrial applications, sulfur is also an important part of all living organisms, and it is also used as a food source by some bacteria, such as those found around hydrothermal vents.
On the periodic table of elements, sulfur is identified by the symbol S. The element has an atomic number of 16, and a number of different ions. An ion is a form of an element which has gained or lost electrons, changing the chemical structure and electrical charge of the element. Many consumers are familiar with sulfites, sulfur ions which are used in the preservation of many food products. Sulfates, another common ion, are used in a number of applications.
There is some dispute over the spelling of sulfur. In the United States, and many other countries, the word is “sulfur.” In nations which use British English, the name is more usually spelled as sulphur. Although both spellings are recognized as correct, “sulfur” is actually more etymologically correct, reflecting the Latin roots of the word. In an attempt to standardize the spelling, most chemists try to use an “f”.
In pure form, sulfur has a number of allotropes. Allotropic elements are elements which can have a number of pure structures; carbon is a well known allotropic element, appearing in the form of both diamonds and coal. Most of the allotropes of sulfur are crystalline in structure, although one is more plastic in nature. The most well known one appears in a yellow, odorless crystalline form which is also rather brittle. Many people are surprised to learn that sulfur is odorless; the rotten egg scent associated with this element is actually hydrogen sulfide, a dangerous sulfur compound.
The extremely reactive element is used in a number of applications including the manufacture of gunpowder, insecticides, and prescription drugs. It is also part of the vulcanization process for rubber, and it is the base for well-utilized compounds like sulfuric acid. In nature, sulfur can be found in compounds like galena and cinnabar, and it may also appear in pure deposits, especially around volcanoes and mineral springs.
Sulfur itself is generally safe to handle, but many of its compounds are more risky. Some are extremely toxic, and people should always be careful to follow listed precautions of chemicals like sulfur dioxide.