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In inorganic chemistry
Inorganic chemistry
Inorganic chemistry is the branch of chemistry concerned with the properties and behavior of inorganic compounds. This field covers all chemical compounds except the myriad organic compounds , which are the subjects of organic chemistry...

, a sulfate (IUPAC
International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry is an international federation of National Adhering Organizations that represents chemists in individual countries. It is a member of the International Council for Science . The international headquarters of IUPAC is located in Zürich,...

-recommended spelling; also sulphate in British English
British English
British English, or English , is the broad term used to distinguish the forms of the English language used in the United Kingdom from forms used elsewhere...

) is a salt of sulfuric acid
Sulfuric acid
Sulfuric acid is a strong mineral acid with the molecular formula . Its historical name is oil of vitriol. Pure sulfuric acid is a highly corrosive, colorless, viscous liquid. The salts of sulfuric acid are called sulfates...


Chemical properties

The sulfate ion is a polyatomic
Polyatomic ion
A polyatomic ion, also known as a molecular ion, is a charged species composed of two or more atoms covalently bonded or of a metal complex that can be considered as acting as a single unit in the context of acid and base chemistry or in the formation of salts. The prefix "poly-" means "many," in...

 anion with the empirical formula
Empirical formula
In chemistry, the empirical formula of a chemical compound is the simplest positive integer ratio of atoms of each element present in a compound. An empirical formula makes no reference to isomerism, structure, or absolute number of atoms. The empirical formula is used as standard for most ionic...

  and a molecular mass
Molecular mass
The molecular mass of a substance is the mass of one molecule of that substance, in unified atomic mass unit u...

 of 96.06 daltons
Atomic mass unit
The unified atomic mass unit or dalton is a unit that is used for indicating mass on an atomic or molecular scale. It is defined as one twelfth of the rest mass of an unbound neutral atom of carbon-12 in its nuclear and electronic ground state, and has a value of...

 (96.06 g/mol); it consists of a central sulfur
Sulfur or sulphur is the chemical element with atomic number 16. In the periodic table it is represented by the symbol S. 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...

The atom is a basic unit of matter that consists of a dense central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. The atomic nucleus contains a mix of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons...

 surrounded by four equivalent oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

 atoms in a tetrahedral
In geometry, a tetrahedron is a polyhedron composed of four triangular faces, three of which meet at each vertex. A regular tetrahedron is one in which the four triangles are regular, or "equilateral", and is one of the Platonic solids...

 arrangement. The symmetry is very similar to that of methane, CH4. The sulfur atom is in the +6 oxidation state
Oxidation state
In chemistry, the oxidation state is an indicator of the degree of oxidation of an atom in a chemical compound. The formal oxidation state is the hypothetical charge that an atom would have if all bonds to atoms of different elements were 100% ionic. Oxidation states are typically represented by...

 while the four oxygen atoms are each in the −2 state. The sulfate ion carries a negative two charge
Charge (physics)
In physics, a charge may refer to one of many different quantities, such as the electric charge in electromagnetism or the color charge in quantum chromodynamics. Charges are associated with conserved quantum numbers.-Formal definition:...

 and is the conjugate base
Conjugate acid
Within the Brønsted–Lowry acid-base theory , a conjugate acid is the acid member, HX, of a pair of two compounds that transform into each other by gain or loss of a proton. A conjugate acid can also be seen as the chemical substance that releases, or donates, a proton in the forward chemical...

 of the bisulfate (or hydrogen sulfate) ion, , which is the conjugate base of , sulfuric acid
Sulfuric acid
Sulfuric acid is a strong mineral acid with the molecular formula . Its historical name is oil of vitriol. Pure sulfuric acid is a highly corrosive, colorless, viscous liquid. The salts of sulfuric acid are called sulfates...

. Organic sulfates, such as dimethyl sulfate
Dimethyl sulfate
Dimethyl sulfate is a chemical compound with formula 2SO2. As the diester of methanol and sulfuric acid, its formula is often written as 2SO4 or even Me2SO4, where CH3 or Me is methyl...

, are covalent compounds and ester
Esters are chemical compounds derived by reacting an oxoacid with a hydroxyl compound such as an alcohol or phenol. Esters are usually derived from an inorganic acid or organic acid in which at least one -OH group is replaced by an -O-alkyl group, and most commonly from carboxylic acids and...

s of sulfuric acid.

Structure and bonding

The S-O bond length of 149 pm is shorter than expected for a S-O single bond. For example, the bond lengths in sulfuric acid
Sulfuric acid
Sulfuric acid is a strong mineral acid with the molecular formula . Its historical name is oil of vitriol. Pure sulfuric acid is a highly corrosive, colorless, viscous liquid. The salts of sulfuric acid are called sulfates...

 are 157 pm for S-OH. The tetrahedral geometry of the sulfate ion is as predicted by VSEPR theory
VSEPR theory
Valence shell electron pair repulsion theory is a model in chemistry used to predict the shape of individual molecules based upon the extent of electron-pair electrostatic repulsion. It is also named Gillespie–Nyholm theory after its two main developers...

The first description of the bonding in modern terms was by Gilbert Lewis
Gilbert N. Lewis
Gilbert Newton Lewis was an American physical chemist known for the discovery of the covalent bond , his purification of heavy water, his reformulation of chemical thermodynamics in a mathematically rigorous manner accessible to ordinary chemists, his theory of Lewis acids and...

 in his groundbreaking paper of 1916 where he described the bonding in terms of electron octets around each atom, that is no double bonds and a formal charge
Formal charge
In chemistry, a formal charge is the charge assigned to an atom in a molecule, assuming that electrons in a chemical bond are shared equally between atoms, regardless of relative electronegativity....

 of 2+ on the sulfur atom.

Later, Linus Pauling used valence bond theory
Valence bond theory
In chemistry, valence bond theory is one of two basic theories, along with molecular orbital theory, that were developed to use the methods of quantum mechanics to explain chemical bonding. It focuses on how the atomic orbitals of the dissociated atoms combine to give individual chemical bonds...

 to propose that the most significant resonance canonicals had two π bonds involving d orbitals. His reasoning was that the charge on sulfur was thus reduced, in accordance with his principle of electroneutrality.
The double bonding was taken by Pauling to account for the shortness of the S-O bond (149 pm). Pauling's use of d orbitals provoked a debate on the relative importance of π bonding and bond polarity (electrostatic attraction) in causing the shortening of the S-O bond. The outcome was a broad consensus that d orbitals play a role, but are not as significant as Pauling had believed.

Double bonds in the Pauling structure imply a molecular orbital formed from 3d orbitals on sulfur and 2p orbitals on oxygen. A widely accepted description involving pπ - dπ bonding was initially proposed by D.W.J. Cruickshank. In this model, fully occupied p orbitals on oxygen overlap with empty sulfur d orbitals (principally the dz2 and dx2-y2).
However, in this description, despite there is some π character to the S-O bonds, the bond has significant ionic character. For sulfuric acid, computational analysis (with natural bond orbital
Natural bond orbital
In quantum chemistry, a natural bond orbital or NBO is a calculated bonding orbital with maximum electron density. The NBOs are one of a sequence of natural localized orbital sets that include "Natural Atomic Orbitals" , "Natural Hybrid Orbitals" , "Natural Bonding Orbitals" and "Natural Localized...

s) confirms a clear positive charge on sulfur (theoretically +2.45) and a low 3d occupancy. Therefore, the representation with four single bonds is the optimal Lewis structure rather than the one with two double bonds (thus the Lewis model, not the Pauling model).
In this model, the structure obeys the octet rule
Octet rule
The octet rule is a chemical rule of thumb that states that atoms of low The octet rule is a chemical rule of thumb that states that atoms of low The octet rule is a chemical rule of thumb that states that atoms of low (The octet rule is a chemical rule of thumb that states that atoms of low (...

 and the charge distribution is in agreement with the electronegativity
Electronegativity, symbol χ , is a chemical property that describes the tendency of an atom or a functional group to attract electrons towards itself. An atom's electronegativity is affected by both its atomic number and the distance that its valence electrons reside from the charged nucleus...

 of the atoms. The shorter S-O bonds have a different explanation .
However, the bonding representation of Pauling for sulfate and other main group compounds with oxygen is still a common way of representing the bonding in many textbooks.

The apparent contradiction can be cleared if one realizes that the covalent
Covalent bond
A covalent bond is a form of chemical bonding that is characterized by the sharing of pairs of electrons between atoms. The stable balance of attractive and repulsive forces between atoms when they share electrons is known as covalent bonding....

 double bonds in the Lewis structure in reality represent bonds that are strongly polarized by more than 90% towards the oxygen atom. On the other hand, in the structure with an ionic bond
Ionic bond
An ionic bond is a type of chemical bond formed through an electrostatic attraction between two oppositely charged ions. Ionic bonds are formed between a cation, which is usually a metal, and an anion, which is usually a nonmetal. Pure ionic bonding cannot exist: all ionic compounds have some...

, the charge is localized as a lone pair
Lone pair
In chemistry, a lone pair is a valence electron pair without bonding or sharing with other atoms. They are found in the outermost electron shell of an atom, so lone pairs are a subset of a molecule's valence electrons...

 on the oxygen.


Methods of preparing ionic sulfates include:
  • dissolving a metal in sulfuric acid
    Sulfuric acid
    Sulfuric acid is a strong mineral acid with the molecular formula . Its historical name is oil of vitriol. Pure sulfuric acid is a highly corrosive, colorless, viscous liquid. The salts of sulfuric acid are called sulfates...

  • reacting sulfuric acid with a metal hydroxide or oxide
  • oxidizing metal sulfide
    A sulfide is an anion of sulfur in its lowest oxidation state of 2-. Sulfide is also a slightly archaic term for thioethers, a common type of organosulfur compound that are well known for their bad odors.- Properties :...

    s or sulfite
    Sulfites are compounds that contain the sulfite ion SO. The sulfite ion is the conjugate base of bisulfite. Although the acid itself is elusive, its salts are widely used.-Structure:...



Many examples of ionic sulfates are known, and many of these are highly soluble
Solubility is the property of a solid, liquid, or gaseous chemical substance called solute to dissolve in a solid, liquid, or gaseous solvent to form a homogeneous solution of the solute in the solvent. The solubility of a substance fundamentally depends on the used solvent as well as on...

 in water
Water is a chemical substance with the chemical formula H2O. A water molecule contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms connected by covalent bonds. Water is a liquid at ambient conditions, but it often co-exists on Earth with its solid state, ice, and gaseous state . Water also exists in a...

. Exceptions include calcium sulfate
Calcium sulfate
Calcium sulfate is a common laboratory and industrial chemical. In the form of γ-anhydrite , it is used as a desiccant. It is also used as a coagulant in products like tofu. In the natural state, unrefined calcium sulfate is a translucent, crystalline white rock...

, strontium sulfate
Strontium sulfate
Strontium sulfate is the sulfate salt of strontium. It is a white crystalline powder and occurs in nature as the mineral celestine. It is poorly soluble in water to the extent of 1 part in 8,800. It is more soluble in dilute HCl and nitric acid and appreciably soluble in alkali chloride solutions...

, lead (II) sulfate, and barium sulfate
Barium sulfate
Barium sulfate is the inorganic compound with the chemical formula BaSO4. It is a white crystalline solid that is odorless and insoluble in water. It occurs as the mineral barite, which is the main commercial source of barium and materials prepared from it...

, which are poorly soluble. Radium sulfate is the most insoluble sulfate known. The barium derivative is useful in the gravimetric analysis
Gravimetric analysis
Gravimetric analysis describes a set of methods in analytical chemistry for the quantitative determination of an analyte based on the mass of a solid...

 of sulfate: one adds a solution of, perhaps, barium chloride
Barium chloride
Barium chloride is the inorganic compound with the formula BaCl2. It is one of the most common water-soluble salts of barium. Like other barium salts, it is toxic and imparts a yellow-green coloration to a flame. It is also hygroscopic....

 to a solution containing sulfate ions. The appearance of a white precipitate, which is barium sulfate, indicates that sulfate anions are present.

The sulfate ion can act as a ligand attaching either by one oxygen (monodentate) or by two oxygens as either a chelate or a bridge. An example is the neutral metal complex PtSO4(P(C6H5)3)2 where the sulfate ion is acting as a bidentate ligand. The metal-oxygen bonds in sulfate complexes can have significant covalent character.


Sulfates are important in both the chemical industry and biological systems:
  • The lead–acid battery typically uses sulfuric acid.
  • Some anaerobic microorganisms, such as those living in sediment or near deep sea thermal vents, use the reduction of sulfates coupled with the oxidation of organic compounds or hydrogen as an energy source for chemosynthesis. These are known as sulfate-reducing bacteria
    Sulfate-reducing bacteria
    Sulfate-reducing bacteria are those bacteria and archaea that can obtain energy by oxidizing organic compounds or molecular hydrogen while reducing sulfate to hydrogen sulfide...

  • Copper sulfate is a common algaecide
    An algaecide or algicide is a substance used for killing and preventing the growth of algae.-Natural algicides:Barley straw, in England, is placed in mesh bags and floated in fish ponds or water gardens to help reduce algal growth without harming pond plants and animals...

  • Magnesium sulfate
    Magnesium sulfate
    Magnesium sulfate is a chemical compound containing magnesium, sulfur and oxygen, with the formula MgSO4. It is often encountered as the heptahydrate epsomite , commonly called Epsom salt, from the town of Epsom in Surrey, England, where the salt was distilled from the springs that arise where the...

    , commonly known as Epsom salts, is used in therapeutic baths.
  • Gypsum
    Gypsum is a very soft sulfate mineral composed of calcium sulfate dihydrate, with the chemical formula CaSO4·2H2O. It is found in alabaster, a decorative stone used in Ancient Egypt. It is the second softest mineral on the Mohs Hardness Scale...

    , the natural mineral
    A mineral is a naturally occurring solid chemical substance formed through biogeochemical processes, having characteristic chemical composition, highly ordered atomic structure, and specific physical properties. By comparison, a rock is an aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids and does not...

     form of hydrated calcium sulfate
    Calcium sulfate
    Calcium sulfate is a common laboratory and industrial chemical. In the form of γ-anhydrite , it is used as a desiccant. It is also used as a coagulant in products like tofu. In the natural state, unrefined calcium sulfate is a translucent, crystalline white rock...

    , is used to produce plaster
    Plaster is a building material used for coating walls and ceilings. Plaster starts as a dry powder similar to mortar or cement and like those materials it is mixed with water to form a paste which liberates heat and then hardens. Unlike mortar and cement, plaster remains quite soft after setting,...

  • The sulfate ion is used as counter ion for some cationic drugs.


Some sulfates were known to alchemists. The vitriol salts, from the Latin vitreolum, glassy, were so-called because they were some of the first transparent crystals known. Green vitriol is ferrous sulfate heptahydrate, FeSO4·7H2O; blue vitriol is copper sulfate pentahydrate, CuSO4·5H2O and white vitriol is zinc sulfate heptahydrate, ZnSO4·7H2O. Alum
Alum is both a specific chemical compound and a class of chemical compounds. The specific compound is the hydrated potassium aluminium sulfate with the formula KAl2.12H2O. The wider class of compounds known as alums have the related empirical formula, AB2.12H2O.-Chemical properties:Alums are...

, a double sulfate with the formula K2Al2(SO4)4·24H2O, figured in the development of the chemical industry.

Environmental effects

Sulfates occur as microscopic particles (aerosols) resulting from fossil fuel
Fossil fuel
Fossil fuels are fuels formed by natural processes such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms. The age of the organisms and their resulting fossil fuels is typically millions of years, and sometimes exceeds 650 million years...

 and biomass
Biomass, as a renewable energy source, is biological material from living, or recently living organisms. As an energy source, biomass can either be used directly, or converted into other energy products such as biofuel....

 combustion. They increase the acidity of the atmosphere
Earth's atmosphere
The atmosphere of Earth is a layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is retained by Earth's gravity. The atmosphere protects life on Earth by absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention , and reducing temperature extremes between day and night...

 and form acid rain
Acid rain
Acid rain is a rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic, meaning that it possesses elevated levels of hydrogen ions . It can have harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals, and infrastructure. Acid rain is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen...


Main effects on climate

The main direct effect of sulfates on the climate involves the scattering of light, effectively increasing the Earth's albedo
Albedo , or reflection coefficient, is the diffuse reflectivity or reflecting power of a surface. It is defined as the ratio of reflected radiation from the surface to incident radiation upon it...

. This effect is moderately well understood and leads to a cooling from the negative radiative forcing
Radiative forcing
In climate science, radiative forcing is generally defined as the change in net irradiance between different layers of the atmosphere. Typically, radiative forcing is quantified at the tropopause in units of watts per square meter. A positive forcing tends to warm the system, while a negative...

 of about 0.5 W/m2 relative to pre-industrial values, partially offsetting the larger (about 2.4 W/m2) warming effect of greenhouse gas
Greenhouse gas
A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone...

es. The effect is strongly spatially non-uniform, being largest downstream of large industrial areas.

The first indirect effect is also known as the Twomey effect
Twomey effect
Twomey effect — describes how cloud condensation nuclei , possibly from anthropogenic pollution, may increase the amount of solar radiation reflected by clouds. This is an indirect effect....

. Sulfate aerosols can act as cloud condensation nuclei
Cloud condensation nuclei
Cloud condensation nuclei or CCNs are small particles typically 0.2 µm, or 1/100 th the size of a cloud droplet ) about which cloud droplets coalesce. Water requires a non-gaseous surface to make the transition from a vapour to a liquid. In the atmosphere, this surface presents itself as tiny...

 and this leads to greater numbers of smaller droplets of water. Lots of smaller droplets can diffuse light more efficiently than just a few larger droplets.

The second indirect effect is the further knock-on effects of having more cloud condensation nuclei. It is proposed that these include the suppression of drizzle, increased cloud height, to facilitate cloud
A cloud is a visible mass of liquid droplets or frozen crystals made of water and/or various chemicals suspended in the atmosphere above the surface of a planetary body. They are also known as aerosols. Clouds in Earth's atmosphere are studied in the cloud physics branch of meteorology...

 formation at low humidities
Humidity is a term for the amount of water vapor in the air, and can refer to any one of several measurements of humidity. Formally, humid air is not "moist air" but a mixture of water vapor and other constituents of air, and humidity is defined in terms of the water content of this mixture,...

 and longer cloud lifetime. Sulfate may also result in changes in the particle size distribution, which can affect the clouds radiative properties in ways that are not fully understood. Chemical effects such as the dissolution of soluble gases and slightly soluble substances, surface tension depression by organic substances and accommodation coefficient changes are also included in the second indirect effect.

The indirect effects probably have a cooling effect, perhaps up to 2 W/m2, although the uncertainty is very large. Sulfates are therefore implicated in global dimming
Global dimming
Global dimming is the gradual reduction in the amount of global direct irradiance at the Earth's surface that was observed for several decades after the start of systematic measurements in the 1950s. The effect varies by location, but worldwide it has been estimated to be of the order of a 4%...

, which may have acted to offset some of the effects of global warming
Global warming
Global warming refers to the rising average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans and its projected continuation. In the last 100 years, Earth's average surface temperature increased by about with about two thirds of the increase occurring over just the last three decades...


Other sulfur oxyanions

Molecular formula Name
| Peroxomonosulfate
The peroxomonosulfate ion, SO52−, is a sulfur oxoanion. It is sometimes referred to as the persulfate ion, but this term also refers to the peroxodisulfate ion, S2O82−....

Sulfites are compounds that contain the sulfite ion SO. The sulfite ion is the conjugate base of bisulfite. Although the acid itself is elusive, its salts are widely used.-Structure:...

The peroxodisulfate ion, S2O82−, is a sulfur oxoanion. It is commonly referred to as the persulfate ion, but this term also refers to the peroxomonosulfate ion, SO52−.-Compounds containing peroxodisulfate:* Na2S2O8* K2S2O8* 2S2O8...

In chemistry, disulfate or pyrosulfate is the anion with the molecular formula [S2O7]2−. Disulfate is the IUPAC name. It has a dichromate like structure and can be visualised as two corner sharing SO4 tetrahedra, with a bridging oxygen atom....

A disulfite, commonly known as metabisulfite, is a chemical compound containing the disulfite ion [S2O52−].-Production of the disulfite ion:The disulfite ion is a dimer of the bisulfite ion...

The dithionite anion , is an oxoanion of sulfur formally derived from dithionous acid, H2S2O4.-Chemistry:Dithionous acid has not been detected either as a pure compound or in solution....

Thiosulfate is an oxyanion of sulfur. The prefix thio indicates that thiosulfate ion is a sulfate ion with one oxygen replaced by a sulfur. Thiosulfate occurs naturally and is produced by certain biochemical processes...

The tetrathionate anion, S4O62−, is a sulfur oxoanion derived from the compound tetrathionic acid, H2S4O6. Two of the sulfur atoms present in the ion are in oxidation state 0 and two are in oxidation state +5. Alternatively, the compound can be viewed as the adduct resulting from the binding of...