Elemental sulfur exists is a variety of forms in natural systems, from dissolved forms (noted as S[subscript 8(diss)] or in water as S[subscript 8(aq)]) to bulk elemental sulfur (most stable as α-S[subscript 8]). Elemental sulfur can form via several biotic and abiotic processes, many beginning with small sulfur oxide or polysulfidic sulfur molecules that coarsen into S[subscript 8] rings that then coalesce into larger forms:
S[subscript n]O[2− over m] → S[subscript 8(aq)] → S[subscript 8(nano)] → S[subscript 8(sol)] →S[subscript 8(α−S8)(bulk)]. (1)
Formation of elemental sulfur can be possible via two primary techniques to create an emulsion of liquid sulfur in water called sulfur sols that approximate some mechanisms of possible elemental sulfur formation in natural systems. These techniques produce hydrophobic (S[subscript 8(Weimarn)]) and hydrophilic (S[subscript 8(polysulfide)]) sols that exist as nanoparticle and colloidal suspensions. These sols begin as small sulfur oxide or polysulfidic sulfur molecules, or dissolved S[subscript 8(aq)] forms, but quickly become nanoparticulate and coarsen into micron sized particles via a combination of classical nucleation, aggregation processes, and/or Ostwald ripening.
We conducted a series of experiments to study the rate of elemental sulfur particle coarsening using dynamic light scattering (DLS) analysis under different physical and chemical conditions. Rates of nucleation and initial coarsening occur over seconds to minutes at rates too fast to measure by DLS, with subsequent coarsening of S[subscript 8(nano)] and S[subscript 8(sol)] being strongly temperature dependent, with rates up to 20 times faster at 75°C compared to 20°C. The addition of surfactants (utilizing ionic and nonionic surfactants as model compounds) results in a significant reduction of coarsening rates, in addition to known effects of these molecules on elemental sulfur solubility. DLS and cryo-SEM results suggest coarsening is largely a product of ripening processes rather than particle aggregation, especially at higher temperatures. Fitting of the coarsening rate data to established models for Ostwald ripening additionally support this as a primary mechanism of coarsening.
Elemental sulfur sols coarsen rapidly at elevated temperatures and experience significant effects on both solubility and particle coarsening kinetics due to interaction with surfactants. Growth of elemental sulfur nanoparticles and sols is largely governed by Ostwald ripening processes.