The Big Picture stinks!

By Phil Plait | December 11, 2010 7:24 am

The Big Picture is a fantastic site — seriously, one of the web’s best — posting beautiful, high-res pictures. The latest is as bizarre as I’ve seen, though: images of burning sulfur tended by miners at the Kawah Ijen volcano in Indonesia:

bigpicture_sulfur

These pictures are tremendous and stunning. The colors are saturated and gorgeous. Seriously, go look.

But geez, burning sulfur? Can you imagine the smell? My nose is stinging just from the acrid thought of it. Yikes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures

Comments (34)

  1. Steve

    Amazing! The entire story on that site is fantastic.

  2. Daniel J. Andrews

    I’d heard–via an IMAX film–that people mining sulfur have greatly shortened life spans due to the corrosion of their lungs (sulfur powder inhaled plus moisture in the lungs = sulfuric acid). Going on memory, the narrator said something like, the people are willing to accept these risks as they are happy to serve their god. Whoever said religion is not good for anything–in this case it helps supply our rampant commercial consumer throw-away lifestyle and our “f*** you all as long as I get my cheap goods” mentality.

    Sorry to be the rain on the parade. I must be getting old.

  3. Georg

    But geez, burning sulfur? Can you imagine the smell? My nose is stinging just from the acrid thought of it.

    Sulfur dioxide is not poisonous and second You
    can adjust to rather high concentrations.
    But: Texas Frasch sulfur mining stopped long ago,
    because sulfur from desulfurication of mineral
    oil products is in vast excess of demand.
    This dangerous mining seems to depend on
    some customs dutys in Indonesia?
    Georg

  4. Nice link-bait title. I can’t wait until the Big Picture’s feature on vacuum cleaners so Phil can say “The Big Picture Sucks!”

  5. Mr. D

    ulphur… Sulphur! Write that down in your copy books now.

  6. Chris Winter

    Mountains — burning all over, with funny blue flames…

    Time for another Arthur C. Clarke quote, from Childhood’s End. I’d post it, but I can’t remember the name Clarke gave the planet involved.

  7. Chris Winter

    Kudos to the photographer, who lost 1 camera, 2 lenses, and a set of clothes to the conditions at the mine.

    And kudos to the miners, who work in those conditions for (if they’re lucky) $13 per day.

  8. David

    I thought I’d provide a little chemical background on sulfur. When sulfur is in the solid yellow form it consists of 8 sulfur atoms linked together into a ring. When you melt sulfur the rings begin to break open and form chains of sulfur atoms and the color changes to a reddish brown color. When this happens the liquid sulfur becomes very viscous because the chains become all tangled up kind of like a bowl of spaghetti.

    As you heat the sulfur more the chains begin to break up and the sulfur becomes more fluid and retains its reddish color. At this point if you pour the liquid sulfur into water and cool it quickly it will harden and become red and rubbery. This is because the sulfur atoms have not had enough time to reform the ring like molecules and are stuck in long chains.

    As time passes though, the ring like molecules will slowly reform and the color will change to yellow and it will become brittle again.

  9. Georg

    When you melt sulfur the rings begin to break open and form chains of sulfur atoms and the color changes to a reddish brown color.

    Not exactly. This happens at temperatures well above melting
    point.
    If You stay just some degrees over melting temperature
    You still have a yellow low viscosity melt.
    (Otherwise shipping molten sulfur in trucks and Frasch
    process were not possible.)
    Georg

  10. Gary Ansorge

    3 Georg

    Actually, from what I recall from my days at Berri Gas plant in Arabia, SO2 IS toxic.
    From Wikipedia;

    “Inhaling sulfur dioxide is associated with increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death.[15] In 2008, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists reduced the Short-term exposure limit from 5ppm to 0.25ppm. The OSHA PEL is currently set at 5ppm (13 mg/m3) time weighted average. NIOSH has set the IDLH at 100ppm.[16]”

    H2S on the other hand, is incredibly toxic, ten times more deadly than cyanide.

    We were told, during our safety meetings, that if there was an H2S release at the plant, to run uphill, since H2S is heavier than air. If exposed to it we would smell a strong odor of rotten eggs
    with the first breath, no smell at all with the second(paralyzes the olfactory bulb) and the third breath would result in loss of consciousness and then death(since H2S paralyzes the respiratory center in the brain).

    The people who work in the petro-chemical industry have the highest rates of cancer of any industry just so we can have cheap plastics, fertilizer, meds and fuel. Aren’t they nice?

    The sulphur removed from the natural gas liquids was deposited in large blocks, 100 feet long, by 50 feet wide by 30 feet tall. Sulphur is an excellent thermal insulator, such that workers were warned to never walk on the apparently solid surface of these blocks. One dis obeyed and crashed thru the surface. The block had been sitting for several months when that occurred. He, of course, died,,,quickly. (Sulphur is liquid at 240 degrees F.)
    Gary 7

  11. Jon Hanford

    These pictures reminded me of -

    A. A dragon’s lair

    B. Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno

    C. Sulfur mines on Io (we have seen volcanoes and molten sulfur ‘lakes’ on the surface, after all).

  12. Jeremy

    Cool pictures, unimaginably horrible working conditions. That most of the miners can’t afford the respirators necessary to do this work with even a modicum of safety is a rather sad statement. Here’s a process that’s vitally necessary for our various modern comforts, and the people that labor away to allow that can’t even afford rudimentary safety gear.

  13. Alexander van Houten

    Though I admire the startling unreal and unearthly beauty of that place I can not abide the romanticizing of the terrible working conditions. There are other sources of sulphur as pointed out in an other post, use them.

  14. NAW

    Awesome, and picture #17 looks almost like a shot from a Star Wars film. You know, red glow on one side and blue on the other……. Ok, I’ll shut up now…..

  15. bigjohn756

    Long ago, I had a Gilbert chemistry set. One of my favorite experiments was to burn sulfur. What a beautiful color! What a lovely odor! I was really pissed off when my little sister and her boyfriend decided, one day, to eat all of the remaining chemicals in the set. Susan Alethea and Jimmy, I will never forget! Well, they were only five years old, or so, so perhaps I should forgive them now that they are well into their 60s.

  16. J

    Irrational anti-vaxxers in Nigeria trying to sue Pfizer for $2 billion.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1014209820101210

  17. If you don’t like the smell of acrid brimstone then you better repent now…
    I’m just kidding. There is no god or afterlife.

  18. Zucchi

    Okay, I’m putting this on my list of jobs that really should be done by robots.

  19. Donnie B.

    You want acrid smells? I foolishly followed a friend’s advice and tried using mothballs to discourage critters in my attic. Big mistake — the naphthalene fumes saturated my house and made me sick (quite literally – nausea, loss of appetite, and tachycardia).

    As we speak, my cellulose attic insulation (along with the 100 or so mothballs) is being removed right down to the bare ceiling below. I had to stay in a hotel several nights. Hopefully I can get the stink out of the house before spring, but naphthalene is very persistent.

    Worse than the $$ this is costing me is the sting of having done something so stupid. Aauuugh! [/Charlie Brown]

  20. Gary Ansorge

    19. Donnie B.

    On the other hand, I’ll bet there are no critters in your attic anymore,,,or your basement, garage or anywhere down wind.(Your friend just forgot to mention THAT side effect)

    Gary 7

  21. AH

    I work in the Canadian oilsands, where the sulphur from the oil is removed and stored in enormous blocks. They remind me of the Egyptian pyramids, as if we built them as temples to worship the gods (which is true if you think of oil as a god). I’ve walked on these blocks and watched the sulfur being poured and can testify to the smell. As said above, if these miners aren’t wearing respiratory equipment they must have short life expectancies.
    Here’s an unusual fact for you: the ravens love flying around those blocks. We speculate that they’re catching updrafts from rising warm air.

  22. Gary Ansorge

    21. AH

    “I’ve walked on these blocks”

    ,,,which is a VERY dangerous thing to do. Sulphur is an excellent thermal insulator and these blocks take months, possibly years(depending on their size) to completely solidify. We had(in Arabia) at least ONE arab fall thru the apparently solid skin of sulphur on such a block,,,he died,,,(temp of liquefaction of sulphur is 240 degrees F)

    Gary 7

  23. Vasha

    Zucchi, what would you make the robots out of that could stand up to SO2 corrosion? (Not a snarky question, just a technical matter)

  24. Brian Hurt

    I got 12 credits in “Intro to The Big Picture”. My prof said that it was so big, 12 credits probably wasn’t enough.

  25. Menyambal

    Beautiful pictures, scary place. It is amazing what people can do and will do.

    Can anyone come up with a cheap respirator for those guys to make–something like baking soda in a burnt sock? With all the chemists out there, someone should be able to.

    The $13 dollars a day they make is excellent money, by the way. Not worth dying for, but worth the work and pain they go through, at least for them, obviously. When I was in Indonesia, $3 a day was more than most small-town professionals made.

    But they are hurting, of course. I saw a TV program where someone asked a miner about whether he’d keep working. The translator said, “Yes”, but the first Indonesian word was really the word for “Maybe”.

  26. AH

    #22 Gary Ansorge, these blocks HAVE had years to completely solidify. The temperatures in them are monitored. We knew they were solid.

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    Thinking of natural places full of fire and gas – check out this one :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wF8tZjKTfEE

    “The Darvaza area [in Turkmenistan] is rich in natural gas. While drilling in 1971 geologists accidentally found an underground cavern filled with natural gas. The ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, leaving a large hole with a diameter of about 50-100 meters. To avoid poisonous gas discharge, it was decided to burn the gas. Geologists had hoped the fire would go out in a few days but it has been burning ever since. Locals have named the cavern The Door to Hell.”

    - From the linked Youtube clip’s description.

    Wikipedia :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darvaza

    Has more including the place’s alternative name of Derweze.

    Remarkable planet we live on that has such places in it. :-)

  28. Messier Tidy Upper

    @6. Chris Winter Says:

    “Mountains — burning all over, with funny blue flames…”
    Time for another Arthur C. Clarke quote, from Childhood’s End. I’d post it, but I can’t remember the name Clarke gave the planet involved.

    Found it for y’all :

    “I wasn’t frightened, Mummy,” came a small indignant voice. “but it was such a strange place.”

    “What was?” asked George. “Tell me all about it.”

    “There were mountains,” said Jeff dreamily. “They were ever so high and there was no snow on them, like on all the mountains I’ve ever seen. Someof them were burning.”

    “You mean – volcanoes?”

    “Not really. They were burning all over, with funny blue flames. And while I was watching the sun came up.”

    “Go on – why have you stopped?”

    Jeff turned puzzled eyes towards his father.

    “That’s the other thing I don’t understand, Daddy. It came up so quickly, and it was much too big. And it wasn’t the right colour. It was such a pretty blue.”

    … [Snip.]

    “A blue sun” said Karellan, not many hours later “that must have made identification fairly easy.”

    “Yes,” Rashaverak answered. “It is undoubtedly Alphanidon 2. The sulphur mountains confirm the fact. And its interesting to notice the distortion of the time scale. The planet rotates fairly slowly, so he must have observed many hours in a few minutes.”
    Pages 152-153,Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke, 1954, 1990, Pan Books. italics original.

    Bonus info. – the Overlords Star is NGS 549672 (National Geograhic Survey) and some good astronomy is involved in its despription on pages 96-97.

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    PS. That world could be named as one word or two, either ‘Alphanidon 2′ or ‘Alpha-nidon 2′ with a hyphen. There is a word-break slash to fit the typesetting in my copy of the novel which has the updated new prologue & introduction.

    Of course, there’s no (human – yet) constellation of ‘nidon’ [whatever that means in Latin] & why the Overlords would be using Bayer (greek) letter designations is unclear, although we can assume translation into English from Overlordish! ;-)

    Jeff’s dream of Alphanidon 2 was one of – if not the very first – of several strange Out Of Body journey’s to various alien scenes marking the beginning of the transformation – & extinction – of Humanity in the novel.

    The blue sun making identification easy may seem improbable given the sheer number of O-B stars at first glance although :

    a) O-B stars are incredibly rare albeit also visible over the vastest distances making up less than 1% of all stars but commonly starring in many of our constellations as lucidas. (Brightest stars.)

    b) The blue colouration is still likely to be subtle rather than intense with most probably looking more white-blue-white than blue per se

    &

    c) Exoplanets are probably hard to form and thus especially rare for O-B stars, esp. given & the hotter & more bluer = the more mass a star has = the less likely planets are to form because of the stars extreme radiation and stellar winds and also the rapid stellar evolution of short-lived O-B stars gives less time for planetary formation and stable existence to occur.

    Therefore it could well be that planets with blue suns are exceptionally rare even given the number of blue (spectral type O & B) stars in our Milky Way.

    A possible speculation for Alphanidon-2 could then just possibly involve a “rogue planet” ejected into space earlier from its original star system and subsequently captured ino orbit around an O-type star. (Purely speculation on my part and NOT something suggested by Clarke or the Overlords.)

    The Overlord’s star which given a likely if unstriking catalogue designation for a distant sun-like or dimmer one on page 88 as well as 96-97 – is probably located in our constellation of Carina or nearby. (Although this is suggested rather than stated.)

    Oh &, yes, I’d highly recommend reading the novel as this *is* one of my personal faves! ;-) :-)

  30. Gary Ansorge

    26. AH

    EXcellent!!! In Arabia, we had no such monitoring, which I guess is why our Arab died.

    29. Messier Tidy Upper

    Check out this latest theory of planet formation. It’s very interesting.

    http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/26119/?nlid=3874

    Gary 7

  31. Chris Winter

    Thank you, MTU. That brings back memories, and corrects some others.

    “Yes,” Rashaverak answered. “It is undoubtedly Alphanidon 2. The sulphur mountains confirm the fact. And its interesting to notice the distortion of the time scale. The planet rotates fairly slowly, so he must have observed many hours in a few minutes.”
    Pages 152-153,Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke, 1954, 1990, Pan Books. italics original.

    I’ve had it in mind for long that Alphanidon 2 was the planet of the dawn. Obviously that’s wrong. I remember it as Jeff’s final dream, of a planet where a line of misty columns marched out to sea under a cloud-flecked sky.

    Alphanadon II and the Pillars of the Dawn,” said Rashaverak. “He has reached the center of the universe.”

    I must have liked the name (and the spelling).

    Bonus info. – the Overlords Star is NGS 549672 (National Geograhic Survey) and some good astronomy is involved in its despription on pages 96-97.

    Now that I remember — a red dwarf star in the constellation Carina. :-)

    “Oh &, yes, I’d highly recommend reading the novel as this *is* one of my personal faves!”

    Mine too. Clarke said The City and the Stars is his best novel. It’s very good, but I would rate Childhood’s End his best. It has “the grace of tragedy,” as Weinberg put it.

  32. My parents commented on the fact that a lot of these pictures look like they belong in Middle Earth ;-) They are absolutely gorgeous! And gross-smelling!

  33. Chris Winter

    Addendum: I had a chance at a copy of Childhood’s End yesterday. A little research showed that “Sideneus 4″ is the planet with the Pillars of the Dawn. I would have chosen Alphanidon for than role; but presumably Mr. Clarke had his own reasons.

    Now back on topic, I think…

  34. Chris Winter

    Wikipedia has a decent article on Kawah Ijen and the sulfur mine. And then there’s this:

    http://www.photovolcanica.com/VolcanoInfo/Kawah%20Ijen/Kawah%20Ijen.html

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