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Hacker, Robert W. (ed.) / The Wisconsin engineer
Volume 53, Number 4 (January 1949)

Thisell, W. I.
The sulfur story,   pp. 13-14


Page 14


flows into open ground vats where it solidifies.
  Although this process sound simple enough, it took
many years of experiment and development to perfect it.
The first well was tapped in 1894, but it was not until 1912
that the United States overtook Sicilian production. We
now produce over two million tons annually-more than
twice the combined production of the rest of the world.
  Herman Frasch was no novice in the fields of sulfur
or invention when his process was proven sound. For
years he had worked in chemistry. His de-sulfuization
process, as it was called, was one of his most valuable
discoveries, but he did notable work in many other fields.
                            (P/hoto courtety Eluwood Paypie)
 Here sulfur is being loaded on railroad cars for shipment.
Up to the time he was forced to retire due to ill
health, the United States had granted him sixty-four dif-
ferent patents, most of which were commercial successes.
Many of them involved huge operations, so that his trans-
actions amounted to millions of dollars in value. In both
petroleum and sulfur, two of the nation's most important
chemical ray materials, his discoveries were conceived
and executed upon a grand scale and added literally
billions of dollars to the national wealth.
  Some of the dfficulties which still cause trouble are
caused by subsidence-the caving in of the porous lime-
stone when the sulfur is drained out of it. Subsidence
sometimes makes the upper ground levels sink as much
as twent-five feet. This ground movement bends and
shears off the well casing after three or four months of
operation. When the wells do gasp and die, pumping
crews pull up all except the outer casing, then "cat" the
portable drilling platforms and derricks to the next site.
As this occurs about eight times a month, 90 to 100 times
a year, the drillers leave behind a weird forest of sealed-
off well stumps rising out of the sunken land.
  The crushing of the limestone by the subsidence pre-
vents hot water from wandering into barren exhausted
rock. If it were not for this saving of heat and water, a
miner's profits could easily be pumped away in the form
of fuel and water costs.
  "Salt, lime and sulfur-and the greatest of these is
sulfur." Thus did James Muspratt, the famous British
chemical maufacturer, once summarize the chief raw ma-
terials of his business. This yellow brimstone, the stone
that burns, was no doubt the very first chemical found
and used by the cavemen. Today we use it in some form
in all our industries. In some way it enters into all our
wares and mechanisms. Sold for less than a cent a pound
(1942) for the 99.5(, grade, sulfur is the cheapest chemi-
cal element now available in such purity, and we have
ready on hand the largest stockpile ever amassed of an
elemental material. These are important chemical assets.
  Here in the United States we consume each year close
to two-million tons of sulfur; thirty pounds plus for every
man, woman, and child; twice as much as we use of cop,
per; three times as much as of rubber; five times as of
tobacco; thirty times as of nickel. Hardly a pound of that
vast tonnage is imported. Indeed, we supply most of the
rest of the world with most of their sulfur supplies. Like
coal and iron and petroleum, sulfur is one of the essential
materials of our modern civilization, which we may be
thankful is not in the United States a critical material.
  Yet, most Americans know little about this vital miner-
al. They know even less about the ingenious American
process that melts sulfur a thousand fect underground and
pumps it to the surface; a process that broke an ancient
world-wide monopoly quite as important, though less
publicized, as Chili's monopoly of nitrates or Japan's of
camphor; a process that gave us new industries, that is
vital to our chemical independence, that has created
nearly a billion dollars of new wealth for the American
people and brought to our use more than 50 million tons
of sulfur which, save for this clever invention, would
have been locked, useless, deep in the earth.
  The story of sulfur mining is far from dull. It is a
story of men and machines and the earth itself. A story of
the old Union, of the Brazos Syndicate, of the Mound
Company; of "shoestrings" and "blowouts," of hurri-
canes that piled derricks and piping into heaps like jack-
straws. But most of the story is of men: of Frasch, the
clever persistent inventor; of the forceful Swenson; the
persuasive Pemberton; the quiet-spoken Seeley Mudd; of
smart traders in mineral rights, of rugged financiers who
backed sulfur against long odds; of dogged, resourceful
engineers who built plants in a sea of sticky gumbo miles
from town or railway. A thrilling story of struggle and
achievement, the story of the American sulfur industry.
  The production of sulfur requires smooth operation
assisted by steam turbine-generators, turbine driven
pumps, motor operated pumps, and suitable control equip-
ment. The power supply must be kept steady to maintain
an even flow of molten sulfur as it is pumped from the
well heads. Thence it goes to collecting dumps, measuring
vats and finally to enormous collecting vats. There it is
hardened and stored, later to be dynamited off, loaded
into railroad cars or boats and shipped all over the world.
  So goes the story of sulfur. Probably the first chemical
found and used by the cavemen and more assuredly one
of the foremost materials affecting the existance and ad-
vancement of our civilization.
THE WISCONSIN ENGINEER
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