Carbonyl sulfide

July 24, 2017
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Carbonyl sulfide (COS) is a colorless gas with a sulfur-like odor. Like carbon dioxide (CO2), its molecular structure is linear; but unlike CO2 it is flammable. It decomposes slowly in water and more rapidly in the presence of base.

J. P. Couërbe described what he thought was COS in 1841, but the gas turned out to be a mixture of CO2 and hydrogen sulfide (H2S). In 1867, Hungarian Chemist Carl von Than characterized it correctly; he made it by the reaction between potassium thiocyanate (KSCN) and sulfuric acid (H2SO4), although other gases were coproduced.

For a simple molecule, COS has relatively few applications in research and manufacturing. But at ≈0.5 ppb, it is the most abundant sulfur-containing compound in Earth’s atmosphere, a circumstance that turns out to be surprisingly useful in Earth science.

About 10 years ago, J. Elliott Campbell, then at the University of California, Merced, and other scientists began to evaluate whether COS is a good surrogate for CO2 for tracking how much carbon is taken up by photosynthesis worldwide. Even though COS’s concentration in the atmosphere is smaller than that of CO2 by a factor of ≈106, its atmospheric “signal” is 6 times greater than CO2; and it avoids some of the complications that accompany CO2measurements.

Earlier this year, Campbell, now at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and about two dozen coauthors at multiple institutions reported that COS is likely superior to CO2 for tracing photosynthesis activity worldwide despite COS’s own complications. Their conclusion: “Pursuing multiple lines of evidence, including the COS technique, may yet provide a tractable path for addressing the pressing concern of carbon processes within the climate system.”

MOTW update: 
June 15, 2020

Carbonyl sulfide (COS or OCS) is a colorless gas with a structure similar to that of carbon dioxide (CO2). Although there is only a tiny amount of COS in the atmosphere, researchers found that it is a good surrogate for CO2 for tracking how much carbon is taken up by photosynthesis worldwide.

In an upcoming book titled “Slaying the Climate Dragon: Energy Systems as Our Sword & Shield”, Sandy (George) Lawrence writes, “Carbonyl sulfide is co-absorbed with CO2 into plants, where the cells rapidly deactivate the OCS but utilize the CO2. The amount of OCS thus represents an inverse marker of aggregate global photosynthetic activity. The record in glacial ice bubbles of miniscule amounts represents a record that in theory goes back 600,000 years in Greenland ice cores [and more than] 800,000 years in Antarctic ice cores.”

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