Sulfur History

Elemental Sulfur, also known as Brimstone in its natural state, has been recognized for thousands of years. It is a non-metallic element, S on the periodic chart, with an atomic number of 16. Follow the history of sulfur from biblical times to today, noting the technological leaps in production, and the various processing methods available.

Sulfur uses affect our daily lives in everything from automobile tires to veterinary medicinal salves. The familiar rotten egg odor in drinking water is a result of minute releases of hydrogen sulfide gas. In its pure state, sulfur is odorless and has many beneficial properties.

"Sulphur is a non-metallic element that occurs in both combined and free states and is distributed widely over the earth's surface. It is tasteless, odorless, insoluble in water, and often occurs in yellow crystals or masses. It is one of the most abundant elements found in a pure crystalline form. The word sulphur is Latin for "burning stone", and was used almost interchangeably with the term for fire. Because of its combustibility, sulphur was used for a variety of purposes at least 4,000 years ago (Cunningham 1935).

Sulphur was used by pagan priests 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Pre-Roman civilizations used burned brimstone as a medicine and used "bricks" of sulphur as fumigants, bleaching agents, and incense in religious rites. Pliny (23-27 A.D.) Reported that sulphur was a "most singular kind of earth and an agent of great power on other substances," and had "medicinal [sic] virtues" (Cunningham 1935:17). The Romans used sulphur or fumes from its combustion as an insecticide and to purify a sick room and cleanse its air of evil (Cunningham 1935). The same uses were reported by Homer in the Odyssey in 1000 B.C.

The Greeks and Romans discovered that sulphur could be utilized to make fire and the pyrotechnical displays associated with the Roman circus. The Romans also experimented with using sulphur with tar, rosin, bitumen, and other combustibles. Their work resulted in the production of incendiary weapons, but this ability disappeared with the decline of the Roman Empire. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land in the early 1300s brought with them the knowledge of gunpowder, which had been developed by the Chinese during the time of Confucius (557?-479 B.C.) By mixing sulphur with other substances (Yellow Magic 1937; Mason 1938; Shelton1979). Armed with the knowledge of gunpowder, Europeans demanded increasing quantities of sulphur, beginning in the 12th century. The Greatest impetus in sulphur's industrial use coincides with the birth of chemistry in the 1700s and the recognition of sulphuric acid as an important and versatile mineral acid.

Concomitant with escalating sulphur demand, there was also a fundamental change in supply sources. Although it is plentiful on a world scale, native sulphur is usually found in relatively minute quantities. Deposits large enough to warrant commercial exploitation are a rarity. The greatest quantity of naturally occurring sulphur by far is combined with other elements, most notably the sulfides of copper, iron, lead, and zinc, and the sulfates of barium, calcium (commonly known as gypsum), magnesium, and sodium.

Early civilizations met their meager needs from the easily mined native sulphur deposits near active and extinct volcanoes. The sulphur used by pre-Roman civilizations was probably obtained by heating iron or copper pyrites (Cunningham 1935). Archeological investigations have revealed that the Romans obtained sulphur from Etruscan mines (Mason 1938). Some of Pliny's writing document sulphur mining from the islands north of Sicily (Cunningham 1935). With the discovery of manufacturing methods that used sulphuric acid, these widely scattered sources no longer met the demand. From the late 1700s to the late 1800s, 95% of the world's manufacturing needs were met by the Sicilian sulphur deposits, but monopolistic practices and high prices eventually forced industrial consumers to look for a new supply.

In the late 1800s the Frasch process - a mining technique that recovers from 75% to 92% of a salt dome's recoverable sulphur - became operational (Bodenlos 1973: 615). This made the large underground sulphur deposits of the Texas and Louisiana salt domes exploitable, and provided the world with a new source of high-purity (99.5%) elemental sulphur. These stockpiles today (1992) account for more than 50% of the U.S. sulphur supply (see update notes). By 1913 the United States had become the world leader in sulphur production; it has never relinquished the lead (Whitehead 1931; Shelton 1979). Canada, Japan, France, Poland, and Mexico are also major sulphur suppliers. Volcanic deposits are currently exploited in Indonesia and in Chile and other parts of South America.

Secondary sources of sulphur today are the sulphur dioxide (SO2) obtained from industrial mineral, wastes, and flue gasses, and the hydrogen sulfide (H2S) found in "sour" natural gas, petroleum refinery products, and coke-oven gasses. Once considered unwelcome byproducts of industrial processes, these sources of sulphur have the advantage of being nearly inexhaustible.

From a rather meager beginning, sulphur has become one of the basic materials of industrial production. In the United States, more than 12 million long tons are consumed annually - the equivalent of over 120 pounds per person is employed in the manufacture of more than 30,000 items. Sulphur is used to make gunpowder, matches, phosphate, insecticides, fungicides, and medicine, and in vulcanizing rubber and impregnating wood and paper products. But these are only minor uses. Nearly 90% of the domestic production is converted to sulphuric acid. This workhorse of chemistry is a major component in the manufacture of literally thousands of products, but especially fertilizer. About one-half of the country's sulphur goes to the fertilizer industry. Sulphur and sulphuric acid are so necessary to manufacturing that their demand can be used as an accurate indicator of the nation's business activity. Sulphur consumption is also a reliable barometer of continuing efforts to increase the standard of living of the world's population, and to produce more food."