Monday, June 3, 2013

Element of the Month: Sulfur!

June's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 32.06 amu
Melting Point: 115.21 °C
Boiling Point: 444.6 °C

Sulfur gets a bit of a bad rap, what with it being the brimstone of fire-and-brimstone fame.  It's also the marquee actor in sulfuric acid, a useful but dangerous industrial chemical, infamous for its ability to mess up an ecosystem in the form of acid rain or, in a more concentrated form, to burn horribly right through your poor defenseless flesh.

But don't be a hater!  For one thing, elemental Sulfur is one of the very few Elements that is not a shiny metal or a colorless gas.  It is, indeed, a rather jolly yellow crystalline powder.  Moreover, Sulfur is one of the core team of elements that drive biological processes.  Well, maybe not the core team; that's generally considered to be Carbon, OxygenNitrogen, and Hydrogen.  But the Big Four aren't much good without the Magnificent Seven, which in order of volume in human flesh are Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulfur, Sodium, Chlorine, and Magnesium.  (Mind you, Iron, Cobalt, Copper, Zinc, Molybdenum, Iodine, and Selenium are all quite essential in your case as well.)

The Centerfold!

Sulfur is, in appearance, among the most cheerful elements.

Sure, you're mostly water, but Sulfur is one of the key ingredients that make it possible for such a bag of water as you to walk, talk, mow the lawn, play musical instruments, figure out the new photocopy machine, get the quarterly reports in on time, curate a fantasy football team, form and articulate an opinion as to Pluto's status or lack thereof as one of the planets, and enjoy online art tournaments.  It's part of the chemical structure of key proteins, hormones, and amino acids, and it's part of the reactions that make respiration and metabolism work.  It's not one of those Elements like Iodine, say, where you'd quickly run into serious health problems if you don't get enough of it.  It's more like, if you somehow lost all of your personal Sulfur content, you'd collapse into a lifeless heap of watery goo.*  And we wouldn't want that.

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his Wife.
by Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825
Currently locked in a Second Round tie with Honoré Daumier.  
Sulfur compounds, in addition to being used in a zillion industrial processes, are also important in fertilizers.  That's because Sulfur is an even bigger deal in plant biology than it is in animal biology, and so one consequence of modern agriculture -- a system in which a preposterous surplus of food is grown, and then most of it is fed to livestock in order to derive the minimum possible efficiency from its nutritional value -- is that many long-standing farm areas are starting to be a bit weak in Sulfur content.  Not to worry, though, as Sulfur also happens to be a by-product of oil and natural gas refining, so it is reasonably easy to "top up" agricultural soil from time to time with a judicious application of calcium sulfate. (Regional readers will perhaps have noticed the cheerful yellow heaps of Sulfur stockpiled in Vancouver, British Columbia; it comes from the Alberta oil and gas fields.)

Sulfur has been known and used all over the world since ancient times, and was a big deal deal among the alchemists, so it can't be said to have been "discovered" in the same way that, say, Ytterbium was.  But we can give props to Antoine Lavoisier for insisting that Sulfur is an element, not a compound.  This idea still seems to be holding up.  Lavoisier, among the many other brainy achievements of his life, compiled the first list of elements that, although short and imperfect, was close to accurate, so his recognition of Sulfur carried real weight.

Incidentally, you can still spell it "Sulphur" if that's your thing, but the 'merican spelling seems to be winning out.  Only halfwits like myself spell it "Sulfer."

* This assertion is somewhat conjectural.  There is at present no means of spontaneously removing all Sulfur atoms from a human body.  I do not believe it is even an active form of inquiry, despite the obvious military applications of such a technology.

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