Today, in praise of sulfur. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
One bottle in my boyhood chemistry set held pure sulfur.
I melted sulfur, burned it, used it to make gunpowder. And when that bottle ran
out, I spent my pennies at the drugstore to buy more. We no longer have such
contact with raw sulfur.
So I was delighted to find a sulfur lump on the road near a sulfur plant, yesterday.
Across the fence were great yellow piles. The Arabic verb saffara means to
make yellow. That word is connected to sulfur, and the yellow spice saffron
-- both brilliant yellow. Sulfur is the ninth most plentiful element in the universe.
Much of Earth's sulfur is combined with other materials, from which it can be
extracted. But pure elemental sulfur is plentiful in salt domes on the Texas and
Louisiana coasts where muck and quicksand make it almost impossible to mine.
So let us meet a German immigrant named Herman Frasch. In 1882, Frasch was a
31-year-old consulting chemist in Cleveland. He'd just sold a process to a
Canadian Company for removing sulfur from oil. As a result, Standard Oil set
him up in a major research laboratory to deal with sulfur-related problems.
Sicily then held a virtual monopoly on sulfur. Their deposits were minable, while
ours were not. So Frasch went to work on means for getting at our coastal sulfur.
In 1887, he received a patent for an extraction process. He sank three concentric
pipes down into a sulfur lode. The outer pipe carried pressurized water, heated
just above sulfur's melting point. The middle pipe carried compressed air which
blew the sulfur-water-air mix back up the third pipe in the center.
All that took a lot of energy. But these reserves lay right in the coastal oil
fields so fuel was abundant. That's how East Texas and Louisiana became major
sulfur producers by the early 20th century. Good thing for us, since Italy was allied
with Germany at the outbreak of WW-I and we had to have sulfur for munitions.
We no longer hear as much about sulfur. Texas once produced over eighty percent of
America's sulfur. Now much of it is a byproduct of fossil fuel cleanup. But Texas
still produces over two million tons of Frasch sulfur annually. And that comes from
the coast, on and offshore, just east of here.
So why do we want all that sulfur? Well, we use it in metals and medicines, fertilizers
and fibers, wood pulp and rubber production. Sulfur itself is odorless and nontoxic;
but it combines to make scary stuff like sulfuric acid. When you and I think about
sulfur, we think of the rotten-eggs smell of hydrogen sulfide, H2S. What's less known
is that the H2S in our bodies aids memory and helps our heart. It's one of beneficial
chemicals in garlic.
So let's lay aside our visions of hell and brimstone for a moment as we look at those
pelican-circled piles of sulfur along the Texas coast. There's beauty in that gleaming
yellow trove -- more useful than mere gold, and as lovely as a daffodil.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on sulfur, see
the Handbook of Texas Online.
See also this article on Frasch
as well as the Wikipedia articles on sulfur
and on Frasch, and the Encyclopaedia
Britannica articles on sulfur.
I am grateful to Lewis Wheeler, UH Mech. Engr. Dept, for suggesting the topic. All photos
are by JHL except that of Frasch, which is courtesy of Wikipedia. Sulfur is spelled sulphur
in Great Britain. And the misspelling sulfer is so common as to be regarded almost as
Update: Listener Peter Engleking writes to point out that use of the Frasch process has finally ended in
favor of recovery from oil and gas. The sulfur in the photos above now all comes from the latter source.