Element of the month – Under sulfur’s spell

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In this month’s ‘in your element’ article (subscription required), Thomas Rauchfuss from Illinois points out curious trends in sulfur’s chemistry.

As it turns out, sulfur is a little difficult to describe in a concise manner: although in its elemental form it mostly adopts a crown-shaped 8-membered ring structure, it also exists in 7-membered rings (those are the bright yellow ones) and even traces of smaller rings; and it happily converts to a one-dimensional elastomer when heated. Its anions also like to form chains, which can be extended or reduced, and easily catenated, through redox chemistry.

Similarly, its reactivity can be puzzling, and in particular its catalytic activity. Even though sulfur is well-known to poison industrial catalysts, it actually acts as a catalyst in biological systems — among many other roles. Metal sulfide clusters can quickly transfer electrons, a very desirable property for catalytic functions, and are widespread in biology. Take methanogens, for example, those microbes that produce methane under anaerobic conditions, thus contributing to global warming. Although the precise mechanism continues to intrigue chemists, at least one step involves breaking a methyl–sulfur bond. A reverse reaction, catalyzed by nickel, is now also attracting attention. Another example is the microorganisms that also use metalloenzymes with iron–sulfide sites to convert CO2 to CO or N2 to NH3. Check out the article to find out other sulfur roles.

Even its spelling is a little controversial, with both ‘sulfur’ and ‘sulphur’ widespread in the literature — have a look at our editorial (free but you have to be (freely) registered on nature.com) to find out why we’ve adopted ‘sulfur’ (and nope, this time it’s not simply the Oxford English vs American English spelling, the arguments are more etymologic).


Anne Pichon (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

Anne Pichon

Senior Editor, Nature Chemistry, Springer Nature

Anne received a broad training in chemistry at the National Graduate School of Chemistry in Montpellier, France. She then focused on inorganic and supramolecular chemistry and obtained her MPhil and PhD degrees from the Queen's University Belfast, UK, investigating porous coordination polymers for host–guest applications. After an internship with Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, Anne moved to John Wiley and Sons in 2007 as an assistant editor of the Society of Chemical Industry journals. She joined Nature Chemistry in October 2008, and was initially based in Tokyo where she also worked on other publishing projects with Nature Asia-Pacific. In April 2013, Anne relocated to the London office and now works full time on the journal.