Sulfur Facts: An Essential Element for All Life

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August 29, 2018
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November 2, 2018

To achieve yields and more nutritious foods, all crops need sulphur.

Sulfur. It doesn’t smell great when it comes up with the well water for irrigation, bathing, or drinking, but don’t let the rotten egg-type smell discount the element’s importance.  Some people deemed sulfur important enough that they banded together to create an entire organization to educate people about it and promote its use: The Sulphur Institute (TSI).  (Sulphur is the British spelling of the element.)

Most people recognize the three major elements of fertilizer— nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K)— but The Sulphur Institute wants us to know that “to achieve yields and more nutritious foods, crops need sulphur (S).”  In fact, the major focus of TSI’s website is to share with the world the important role that sulfur plays in agriculture.  Before we delve too deep into sulfur’s importance to growing crops, let’s talk about some important sulfur facts to remember.

A few facts about sulfur

            Sulfur is a chemical element with symbol S and atomic number 16. It is abundant and nonmetallic. Elemental sulfur is a bright yellow crystalline solid at room temperature. Additionally, sulfur:

  • Is a relatively old known element. It was referenced in ancient literature, such as in Homer’s Odyssey, and is mentioned in the Bible, as brimstone.
  • Is the 10th most common element by mass in the universe, and the fifth most common on Earth.
  • Can be found in its elemental state around volcano vents.
  • Production in the United States was 9.04 million metric tons of sulfur content in 2014, all of it recovered as a byproduct, from oil refineries (83 percent), natural gas processing plants (10 percent), and metal smelters (7 percent). The United States was second in the world in sulfur production in 2014, behind China.
  • Has its largest U.S. market in the production of fertilizers, which makes up about two-thirds of consumption.
  • Also is used in its elemental form in black gunpowder, matches, and fireworks; in the vulcanization of rubber; as a fungicide, insecticide, and fumigant; and in the treatment of certain skin diseases.
  • Produces sulfur dioxide, a poisonous gas, when it burns. At one time, this gas was used in New York to fumigate buildings harboring infectious diseases.
  • Has no smell in its purest form, but many of its compounds stink. Sulfur compounds called mercaptans give skunks their defensive odor. Rotten eggs (and most stink bombs) get their distinctive smell from hydrogen sulfide, H2S.
  • Is used, in part, to treat infections. Penicillin is a natural, sulfur-based antibiotic.
  • Is an essential element for all life, but almost always in the form of organosulfur compounds or metal sulfides.

These are just some sulfur facts to help you understand the importance of this essential element.  In the next installment offering facts about sulfur, we’ll talk about its importance to the human body and in the crops we grow.

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