sulfate, chemical compound containing the sulfate (SO4) radical. Sulfates are salts or esters of sulfuric acid, H2SO4, formed by replacing one or both of the hydrogens with a metal (e.g., sodium) or a radical (e.g., ammonium or ethyl). Sulfates in which both hydrogens are replaced are called normal sulfates; sulfates in which only one hydrogen is replaced are called hydrogen sulfates, acid sulfates, or bisulfates. Most metal sulfates are readily soluble in water, but calcium and mercuric sulfates are only slightly soluble, while barium, lead, strontium, and mercurous sulfates are insoluble. In chemical analysis, the sulfate ion, SO4 - 2, is usually detected by adding barium chloride solution; the white barium sulfate precipitate that forms is insoluble in hydrochloric acid. Sulfates are widely distributed in nature. Barium sulfate occurs as barite; calcium sulfate is found as gypsum, alabaster, and selenite; Epsom salts is magnesium sulfate; sodium sulfate occurs as its decahydrate, Glauber's salt; and strontium sulfate occurs as celestite. Some sulfates were formerly known as vitriols; blue vitriol is cupric sulfate, green vitriol is ferrous sulfate, and white vitriol is zinc sulfate. Alums are double sulfates, containing two different metals and two sulfate radicals. Organic sulfates are esters. They can be formed by reacting an alcohol with cold sulfuric acid. They are also formed by the reaction of sulfuric acid with a double bond in an alkene; the product is called an alkyl hydrogen sulfate. An alkyl hydrogen sulfate can be broken down to an alcohol and sulfuric acid by heating it with water (hydrolysis); this reaction is often used to synthesize alcohols. Sulfates play a significant role both in the chemical industry and in biological systems. Sulfuric acid is used in lead storage batteries and in the manufacture of nitric acid; copper sulfate is a common algicide. Organisms found near deep-sea thermal vents use sulfates for energy in place of sunlight.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.