Sulphur is a chemical element with symbol S and atomic number 16. It is an abundant, multivalent non-metal. Under normal conditions, sulfur atoms form cyclic octatomic molecules with chemical formula S8. Elemental sulfur is a bright yellow crystalline solid when at room temperature. Chemically, sulfur can react as either an oxidant or a reducing agent. It oxidizes most metals and several nonmetals, including carbon, which leads to its negative charge in most organosulfur compounds, but it reduces several strong oxidants, such as oxygen and fluorine.
Sulfur occurs naturally as the pure element (native sulfur) and as sulfide and sulfate minerals. Elemental sulfur crystals are commonly sought after by mineral collectors for their distinct, brightly colored polyhedron shapes. Being abundant in native form, sulfur was known in ancient times, mentioned for its uses in ancient India, ancient Greece, China and Egypt. Fumes from burning sulfur were used as fumigants, and sulfur-containing medicinal mixtures were used as balms and antiparasitics. Sulfur is referred to in the Bible as brimstone (burn stone) in English, with this name still used in several nonscientific tomes. It was needed to make the best quality of black gunpowder. In 1777, Antoine Lavoisier helped convince the scientific community that sulfur was a basic element rather than a compound.
Elemental sulfur was once extracted from salt domes where it sometimes occurs in nearly pure form, but this method has been obsolete since the late 20th century. Today, almost all elemental sulfur is produced as a byproduct of removing sulfur-containing contaminants from natural gas and petroleum. The element's largest commercial use (after mostly being converted to sulfuric acid) is to produce sulfate and phosphate fertilizers, because of the relatively high requirement of plants for sulfur and phosphorus. Sulfuric acid is also a primary industrial chemical outside fertilizer manufacture. Other well-known uses for the element are in matches, insecticides and fungicides. Many sulfur compounds are odoriferous, and the smell of odorized natural gas, skunk scent, grapefruit, and garlic is due to sulfur compounds. Hydrogen sulfide produced by living organisms imparts the characteristic odor to rotting eggs and other biological processes.
Sulfur is an essential element for all life, and is widely used in biochemical processes. In metabolic reactions, sulfur compounds serve as both fuels (electron donors) and respiratory (oxygen-alternative) materials (electron acceptors). Sulfur in organic form is present in the vitamins biotin and thiamine, the latter being named for the Greek word for sulfur. Sulfur is an important part of many enzymes and in antioxidant molecules like glutathione and thioredoxin. Organically bonded sulfur is a component of all proteins, as the amino acids cysteine and methionine. Disulfide bonds are largely responsible for the mechanical strength and insolubility of the protein keratin, found in outer skin, hair, and feathers, and the element contributes to their pungent odor when burned.