The first time the phosphorescence of ZnS was observed by the French chemist Théodore Sidot in 1866. His findings were presented by the renowned chemist A. E. Becquerel who was involved in the research on luminescence and phosphorescence.
ZnS was used by Ernest Rutherford and others in the early years of nuclear physics as a scintillation detector, because it emits light on excitation by x-rays or electron beam, making it useful for x-ray screens and cathode ray tubes. It also exhibits phosphorescence due to impurities on illumination with blue or ultraviolet light.
Zinc sulfide, with addition of few ppm of suitable activator, is used as phosphor in many applications, from cathode ray tubes through x-ray screens to glow in the dark products. When silver is used as activator, the resulting color is bright blue, with maximum at 450 nm. Manganese yields an orange-red color at around 590 nm. Copper provides long glow time and the familiar glow-in-the-dark greenish color. Copper doped zinc sulfide (ZnS+Cu) is used also in electroluminescent panels.
Zinc sulfide is also used as an infrared optical material, transmitting from visible wavelengths to over 12 micrometres. It can be used planar as an optical window or shaped into a lens. It is made as microcrystalline sheets by the synthesis from hydrogen sulfide gas and zinc vapour and sold as FLIR (Forward Looking IR) grade ZnS a pale milky yellow visibly opaque form. This material when hot isostatically pressed (HIPed) can be converted to a water-clear form known as Cleartran (trademark). Early commercial forms were marketed as Irtran-2 but this designation is now obsolete.
It can be doped as both n-type semiconductor and p-type semiconductor, which is unusual for the II-VI semiconductors. ZnS is a covalently bonded solid.