Fire and Brimstone

When you think sulphur, your thoughts may well connect to fire lighting methods of old, where the use of a tinderbox may be used to generate a glowing ember, before connecting it with a sulphur tipped match or spill to convert it to flame. This in turn being transferred to a candle increasing its permanence for further use. In this two-part blog we will first take a closer look at sulphur in detail, its history and uses, before going on to seeing how we may go about making our very own sulphur spills in part two.

Old flint and steel set gifted to me by a good friend

So what is sulphur?

The name sulphur is thought to derive from either the Sanskrit ‘sulvere’, (an ancient Indo-European language of India) or the Latin ‘sulfurium’. It is an element (S) which occurs naturally and is found in many minerals like Iron Pyrites and gypsum. Pure sulphur is tasteless and odourless, any smell that anyone may associate with it is actually oxidised material and hydrogen sulphide. It is a brittle solid where even the heat from your hands will fracture it. It is insoluble in water, melts at 115.21°C and reaches a boiling point at 444.61°C. There are several different forms sulphur can be found in, most commonly as a crystal or a pale-yellow powder (think the colour of wild woodland primroses (Primula vulgaris)). Both sulphur and sulphate are not toxic but it can produce toxic substances in certain conditions. These consist of sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, and carbon disulphide. Hydrogen sulphide is especially toxic, becoming deadly if inhaled. This is produced when bacteria brakes down plant and animal material. Sulphur dioxide is released when sulphur is burnt directly or indirectly through coal and unrefined oil. Burning it in these ways releases it into the atmosphere, which causes acid rain.

Sulphur powder

Where is it found?

All living things contain sulphur. It is taken from the soil and seawater as sulphate by plants and algae. It helps to make two important amino acids required to produce proteins and some co-enzymes. The average adult contains 140g and absorbs 1g a day through these proteins. Sulphur is found naturally in volcanic regions where gaseous hydrogen sulphide generated below the surface of the Earth, is then brought up reacting with the oxygen in the air turning into sulphur. Other deposits can be found in underground salt domes within limestone rock, formed by the action of bacteria upon the mineral anhydrite, where sulphur is combined with oxygen and calcium. These underground deposits provide a substantial portion of the world’s supply of the element, which can be found in the United States and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of tons of sulphur are produced each year with China, America and Canada being the top producers.

How is it acquired?

A common way to obtain elemental sulphur used to be through the Fasching process. Superheated water would be pumped down to sulphur deposits to melt it, it would then be pumped up to the surface as a liquid resulting in a high purity level. Today most sulphur is obtained by removing it from oil, natural gas, and tar sands through purification processes.

History of Sulphur?

There is a lot more to sulphur than you may first think. It has played it’s part from prehistory through to antiquity with the Egyptian Greeks and Romans right through to modern times as it continues to play an essential part in all our lives today.

Iron pyrites in various forms acquired by Jay

Some have speculated it was used thousands of years ago by our prehistory ancestors as a pigment for cave painting. It does appear entirely logical that having come across sulphur in its yellow powder form our ancestors would have attempted to leave its mark like an artist’s pastel, working it on to a rock surface to depict hunting scenes, shapes, and symbols, but as much as I would love to believe this, I have not yet found any analytical data to support it. Instead ochre which exists in the mineral limonite and contains 5–20 % yellow hydrated iron oxide became the second most used colour in the prehistoric era. Another darker yellow colour obtained from the earth is Sienna.

We know that the Egyptians were using sulphur both in religious ceremonies and as sulphur dioxide for bleaching cotton. The Greeks mined it near Mt Etna in Sicily and used it also for bleaching cloth as well as helping to preserve wine. Sulphur would be burned to form the sulphur dioxide to be absorbed by the wet cloth or grape juice to act as a fumigant.

The Chinese in 500BCE were utilising it for explosives and fire displays, by the 5th century they were using sticks coated in sulphur to create fire from an ember. By the 10th century these were known as “light-bringing slaves” or “fire inch-sticks” and could be found all over China.

High Quality handmade commercially available sulphur spills and matches

Sulphur is referred to fifteen times in the bible, most notably for destroying the two biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by God with sulphur and fire for their wickedness. The reference to “Fire and brimstone” in the Bible are related to sulphur, suggesting that “hell’s fires” are fuelled by sulphur.

For centuries sulphur and mercury were thought to be key ingredients of all metals. With this it was thought that one metal could be transmutated into another by varying the quantities, forming one of the three aims of alchemy. It’s alchemical symbol is shown against a ‘fire and brimstone’ background. This practice originated in Egypt, and expanded from Arabia to Greece and Rome, and finally to western and central Europe until medieval persecution saw the practice pushed underground along with witchcraft and sorcery. The practice then became superseded by less scrupulous practitioners. In the 18th century scientists began to extract the achievements from the practice to further develop chemistry, medicine, and pharmacology.

During the 19th century several advancements were made using sulphur, placing the gift of fire in the hands of those fortunate enough to obtain it. Some of the notable dates and achievements consist of the following:

Jay’s homemade sulphur matches and spills used to light a candle

1805, Jean Chancel in Paris First match splints tipped with potassium chlorate, sulphur, sugar, and gum could be ignited by dipping them into a small asbestos bottle containing sulfuric acid.

1816, François Derosne invented the Briquet Phosphorique. This was a sulphur-tipped match which was scraped inside a tube coated internally with phosphorus to form a flame.

1826, John Walker a British chemist created Friction Lights the first friction match. Tips coated with a potassium chloride–antimony sulphide paste, which ignited when scraped between a fold of sandpaper

1828, Samuel Jones of London patented the Promethean match. This consisted of a glass bead containing sulphuric acid, the outside of which was wrapped in paper impregnated with sulphur, sugar and potassium chlorate. When the glass was broken with a small pair of pliers, the paper in which it was wrapped was set on fire. The name derives from the Greek myth in which Prometheus, a Titan, stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans.

1855, J.E. Lundström of Sweden patented safety match idea. Modern safety matches usually have antimony sulphide, oxidizing agents such as potassium chlorate, and Sulphur or charcoal in the heads, and red phosphorus in the striking surface. Non safety matches usually have phosphorus sesquisulfide in the heads.

A selection of matches

Sulphur Today

Today over 85% of sulphur is used for the manufacture of sulfuric acid, arguably one of the most important chemicals made today. Its major use is in the manufacture of phosphoric acid which is used to produce phosphates for fertilisers. Other uses for sulfuric acid include, drain cleaner, metal polish, pigments and dyes, fibres, petroleum products, sheet metal, drugs, explosives, and storage batteries to name but a few.

Household chemicals, how many of yours involve sulphur production?

Sulphur is also used in the vulcanisation of black rubber, as a fungicide and the production of black powder.

Sulphites are used in the food industry to preserve a tremendous amount of food items. They are also used to bleach paper, their derivatives can be found in detergents and used to reduce surface tension in other liquids. Gypsum, which is essentially calcium sulphate is used in cement and plaster which equates to millions of tonnes mined every year.

Lead Acid batteries used to keep vehicles moving

Some organosulfur compounds known as mercaptans are also used in natural gas supplies to give it an odour to enable it to be easily detected during a leak. Some of these are also used in the production of pesticides and herbicides.

organosulfur compounds, used to help detect gas leaks

Sulphur then is all around us, in all living things, even us. It has played its part in our story for thousands of years and continues to play a monumental part in all our modern day lives too. In part two of this blog, we will look to reconnect with this element to produce something even more fundamental to our daily existence, in the form of fire. Join me next time as I show you how to produce your very own sulphur spills and matches for you to convert your own embers to flame.

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