Skip to content

Sulfur: A potential resource crisis that could stifle green technology and threaten food security as the world decarbonises

September 20, 2022
tags:

By Paul Homewood

 

h/t WUWT

 

 

The law of unintended consequences?

 

 

 image

image

https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/geoj.12475

The Sulphur Institute (yes there is such a thing!) have this background information:

 

An Introduction to Sulphur

Sulphur is a non-metallic chemical element identified by the letter S. For a list of sulphur’s chemical properties, please click here. Sulphur is a valuable commodity and integral component of the world economy used to manufacture numerous products including fertilizers and other chemicals. For a list of sulphur uses click here. Sulphur also is a vital nutrient for crops, animals and people.

Sulphur occurs naturally in the environment and is the thirteenth most abundant element in the earth’s crust. It can be mined in its elemental form, though this production has reduced significantly in recent years. Since early in the 20th Century, the Frasch process has been used as a method to extract sulphur from underground deposits, when it displaced traditional mining principally in Sicily. Most of the world’s sulphur was obtained this way until the late 20th century, when sulphur’s recovery from petroleum and gas sources (recovered sulphur) became more commonplace. As of 2011, the only operating Frasch mines worldwide are in Poland and since 2010 in Mexico. The last mine operating in the United States closed in 2000. A Frasch mine in Iraq closed in 2003.

Sulphur that is mined or recovered from oil and gas production is known as brimstone, or elemental sulphur. Sulphur produced as a by-product of ferrous and non-ferrous metal smelting is produced in the form of sulphuric acid. A smaller volume is produced as sulphur dioxide, which is also emitted from petroleum products used in vehicles and at some power plants. Plants absorb sulphur from the soil in sulphate form.

Elemental sulphur is produced all over the world. Largest production occurs where sour (meaning sulphur-rich) gas and oil is processed and refined: United States, Canada, the Former Soviet Union, and West Asia.

Over half of elemental sulphur production is traded internationally. China is the world’s largest importer, followed by Morocco and the United States. Canada is the largest exporter, followed by Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Well over half of global sulphuric acid production comes from burning elemental sulphur at points of consumption, with most of the remainder produced at non-ferrous metals smelters and pyrites mines. East Asia, led by China, is the largest overall acid producer, stemming largely from rapid growth. It is followed by North America, Africa, and Latin America. Practically all traded acid is from smelters. Western Europe is the largest acid trading region, followed by East Asia and North America.

Sulphur is the primary source to produce sulphuric acid, the world’s most used chemical and a versatile mineral acid used as an essential intermediate in many processes in the chemical and manufacturing industries. Sulphuric acid is used by the fertilizer industry to manufacture primarily phosphates, and also nitrogen, potassium, and sulphate fertilizers. Sulphur is also used in many other industries including non-ferrous metals, pigments, fibers, hydrofluoric acid, carbon disulphide, pharmaceuticals, agricultural pesticides, personal care products, cosmetics, synthetic rubber vulcanization, water treatment, and steel pickling.

Like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, sulphur is one of the essential plant nutrients. It contributes to an increase in crop yields in three different ways: 1) it provides a direct nutritive value, 2) it provides indirect nutritive value as soil amendment, especially for calcareous and saline alkali soils, and 3) it improves the use efficiency of other essential plant nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. In general, sulphur has similar functions in plant growth and nutrition as nitrogen.

The incidence of soil sulphur deficiency has rapidly increased in recent years. Three major factors are responsible for increased sulphur deficiency: a) intensified cropping systems worldwide demand higher sulphur nutrient availability; b) increased use of high-analysis, sulphur-free fertilizers, and c) reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions, particularly in developed regions, reduces atmospheric sulphur deposition, a "natural" sulphur source. For more information on sulphur fertilizers, please see TSI’s Publications.

Sulphur asphalt (SA), sometimes referred to as sulphur bitumen, sulphur extended asphalt or SEA, is a viable alternative for asphalt road binder. Sulphur’s unique properties to improve the characteristics of asphalt have been known for more than a century. For more information on sulphur asphalt, please see TSI’s Publications.

https://www.sulphurinstitute.org/about-sulphur/introduction-to-sulphur/#:~:text=Sulphur%20produced%20as%20a%20by-product%20of%20ferrous%20and,absorb%20sulphur%20from%20the%20soil%20in%20sulphate%20form.

Finally let’s look at the production data.

Global output of sulphur is about 80 million tonnes a year, nearly all of which is derived from fossil fuels:

image

https://www.usgs.gov/centers/national-minerals-information-center/sulfur-statistics-and-information

As with most things, demand and output has grown over the years. In 1990, for example, it was only 57 million tonnes, of which just 11 million tonnes came from the Frasch process:

 

image

https://www.usgs.gov/centers/national-minerals-information-center/sulfur-statistics-and-information

While there virtually unlimited reserves of sulphur, building mines to access them is another matter.

39 Comments
  1. Mike Jackson permalink
    September 20, 2022 11:10 am

    If only we could repeal the Law of Unintended Consequences!

  2. Jack Broughton permalink
    September 20, 2022 11:19 am

    India and China may well corner the market as they increase their coal burn, this then becomes a security of supply issue. We could easily produce more sulphur by using Venezuelan and other high sulphur fuel oils with sulphur recovery, rather than expensive, (while demand exceeds supply anyway), imported gas and electricity.

    • Carnot permalink
      September 20, 2022 1:46 pm

      Funny how this topic suddenly surfaced as I have been warning about it for over 1 year. Reduce refining cpacity and you reduce the ability to produce sulphur. The ESG/ EDI crowd have done a great job in Europe and the US into scaring refinereis into disinvesting ( means shutting capacity). The EU ( and UK) is not in a position to process more heavy high sulphur crude, especially of the type you have suggested and never has really been able to do so. Typically the EU refineries were designed and built around medium crudes (32 API) with moderate sulphur – Arab Light would be a good example as well as Urals. The crude distillation capacity would actually REDUCE if heavy high S crudes were processed and there would be a massive over supply of heavy high sulphur fuel oil with no home, and a reduction in the production of light distillates; hydrotreating capacity would also be stressed. The sulphur cannot be recovered economically from combustion gases as it is diluted and oxidised to SOX. The sulphut recovery process uses the Claus process which reacts hydrogen sulphide with sulphur dioxide to produce elemental sulphur. No refiner is going to invest in the necessary infrastructure to process heavy high S crudes.
      Most of the EU refineries ( I have worked on all the existing and past UK refineries since 1980) and the crude slate was a mix of crudes to hit around 32 API. Light crudes ( Brent 38 API and Forties 40 API) were gernerally too light to run at 100% and were blended with heavier crudes.
      The US has the same problem. It cannot process all of its light shale oil because of the refinery configuration. It sells the light oil and imports heavy crude to run in the Gulf Coast refineries. The UK did much the same . Only part of the North Sea production was refined in the UK.

      • Harry Passfield permalink
        September 20, 2022 2:05 pm

        Good comment. Very informative. Thanks.

      • Vernon E permalink
        September 20, 2022 4:22 pm

        Carnot: Surely a large proportion of the sulphur comes from natural gas pre-treating? When I worked for a while in Abu Dhabi in the mid 1990s I saw a huge mountain of elemental sulphur at a site I conneced more with natural gas than refining. I thought at the time “how the hell are they ever going to get rid of that?”

  3. Ben Vorlich permalink
    September 20, 2022 11:23 am

    And we’ve been told for decades that Acid Rain caused by burning fossil fuels was evil

  4. Mikehig permalink
    September 20, 2022 11:27 am

    This prompts the thought….has anyone made an exhaustive list of all the products we get from oil and gas and then identified alternative sources for each and every one? There is a massive, interlinked web of product chains with oil and gas at the centre.
    In addition there are all the companies providing materials used in processing oil and gas which face a declining market, were we to actually start reducing FF consumption.
    I doubt whether many, if any, of the anti-FF protestors have the slightest inkling of this. The response could well be that oil and gas would continue to be produced just for these uses, without any attempt to put a price on such limited output.

    • Carnot permalink
      September 20, 2022 3:41 pm

      The list is indeed exhaustive and no such list appears anywhere I know. The best place to start is with base chemicals. Ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, toluene , xylenes, ammonia, methanol and a few others. These are the building blocks that most petrochemical finished products are built from. That includes polymers, surface coatings (including the so called water based coatings), elastomers, detergents, lubricants, fibres, water treatments, biocides, pharmaceuticals, food packaging, paper chemicals and a host of other products.
      The best way to deal with these clowns is to ask them what they could not do without – what about a tootbrush. This short video gives an idea of the extent of our dependency.

      Forget bio options and carbon dioxide recycling. We could not produce enough energy to make these products.

    • Carnot permalink
      September 20, 2022 3:55 pm

      The list is indeed exhaustive and no such list appears anywhere I know. The best place to start is with base chemicals. Ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, toluene , xylenes, ammonia, methanol and a few others. These are the building blocks for the production of most petrochemical products which icludes such products as polymers, elastomers, surface coatings, detergents, lubricants, fibres, water treatments, biocides, pharmceuticals, food packaging and countless other applications. Our dependency on petroleum products is absolute and bio and carbon dioxide recycling is wishful thinking due to the energy intensity. Here is a link to a short and funny video

      • Mikehig permalink
        September 20, 2022 5:37 pm

        Thanks for all the info and the vid – need a laugh these days!

    • Dan permalink
      September 21, 2022 7:44 am

      Yes, it is well known and easily accessible knowledge in industry. The oil supply chain, particularly from c3-c6 fractinos are well defined. Start with refining a barrel of oil
      Is it widely advertised or understood. No. Just take steel and cement which people wont commonly link to emissions or fossil fuels.

    • Ian Johnson permalink
      September 22, 2022 1:11 pm

      Evil plastic for wind turbine blades and nacelles is from petroleum.

  5. Gamecock permalink
    September 20, 2022 11:43 am

    ‘as the world decarbonises’

    Fantasyland. Ain’t gonna happen.

    • Mike Jackson permalink
      September 20, 2022 1:28 pm

      Considering the substances involved in gluing themselves to road surfaces or valuable paintings or tying themselves to goalposts one can only conclude that they are stupid, ignorant, hypocritical or pursuing some goal that they are not telling the truth about.
      I wonder which.

  6. HotScot permalink
    September 20, 2022 11:44 am

    Humanity has evolved a finely balanced human/environmental ecosystem (for want of a better expression) over the last 200 years or so, be it by accident (probably) or design (unlikely).

    Largely driven by supply and demand, it adjust’s incrementally as time moves on, little of it planned to any great degree.

    Now we have ideological revolutionary greens influencing mankind to its detriment. Armed with ‘the perfect solution’ planning excludes any evolutionary effect.

    It’s these ideologies, that most of us realised at a very early age just don’t work because ‘perfect’ just doesn’t exist, that’s driving the world to madness and poverty.

  7. September 20, 2022 11:56 am

    ” … a massive increase in environmentally damaging mining will be required to fill this resource demand …”

    Huh, where is the concern for all the other damaging mining and agriculture required to produce so-called “green” energy and food?

  8. Wiggers42 permalink
    September 20, 2022 2:11 pm

    Supply and demand are moderated by price. Nothing more to say.

    • Ben Vorlich permalink
      September 20, 2022 6:05 pm

      I would say price is moderated by supply and demand.
      This is why energy prices are high at the moment. Countries with fossil fuel energy to sell and reasons to sell, will up production. That is the normal reaction.
      The UK meets the criteria, but politicians have rigged the market for no good reason

  9. StephenP permalink
    September 20, 2022 2:39 pm

    In the 1970s one my jobs was sampling kale, wheat and grass for sulphur deficiency. The end result is that fertilisers need added sulphur to replace the shortfall caused by reduced sulphur emissions.
    Sulphur is leached from soil at a similar rate to nitrogen so unless a field is on high sulphate subsoil crops will need sulphur added each season.
    (High sulphate subsoils need a special type of concrete for building footings.)

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      September 20, 2022 3:32 pm

      Indeed so. I remember being told many years ago about the impact of tall refinery chimneys in Rotterdam, which contained significant SO2 emissions, despite increasingly extensive hydrodesulphurisation and manufacture of prilled sulphur (yellow flowers). At the time acid rain was the hot environmental issue, but on the other side of the equation was the fact that it provided free distribution of sulphur fertilisation for agriculture across a wide swathe of Europe.

    • Vernon E permalink
      September 20, 2022 4:26 pm

      I don’t really get this. If sulphur is important to agriculture why was ammonium sulphate abandoned as the fertiliser of choice in preference to urea and ammonium nitrate?

      • StephenP permalink
        September 20, 2022 8:36 pm

        Because ammonium nitrate contains a higher percentage of nitrogen 34.5% as opposed to 21% in ammonium sulphate.
        Also ammonium nitrate can be made as a prill (like lead shot is made) by spraying molten ammonium nitrate through a shower head at the top of a high tower and it solidifies in a current of cold air being drawn up the tower. The prills are easier to put through a fertiliser spreader than ammonium sulphate.
        That said, some farmers give an initial dressing of ammonium sulphate in the spring which provides enough sulphur for that growing season.

      • Vernon E permalink
        September 21, 2022 7:00 pm

        Stehen: I know all that – I commissioned two urea plants in the 1960s. But you don’t answer my question. If sulphur is as imortant as it is now being made out to be, why was the only sulphur containing fertiliser so promptly abandoned? Prilling is secondary – mosrt NPK fertilisers are sold as granules.

      • StephenP permalink
        September 21, 2022 9:22 pm

        The other effect of using ammonium sulphate was the acidifying effect on the soil which was greater than other commonly used forms of nitrogen fertiliser.
        In the 1960/70s sulphur deficiency was not a problem in the UK. It only became a problem in the late 1980s.
        Also using the more concentrated forms of nitrogen fertiliser reduced the tonnage needing to be handled by 1/3 to 1/2.

      • Vernon E permalink
        September 22, 2022 4:04 pm

        Stephen P: I have been doing some reading on this. Fascinating. It is clear that the ball was dropped in the rush to change from ammonium sulphate to urea in the 1960s and and the importance of sulphur does not seem to have been recognised. India is mentioned as particularly deficient which interests me because I ran Power Gas’s Indian operation from 1966 to 1971 and worked closely with FACT (Fertilisers abnd Chemicals Travencore) and was involved with their ammonium sulphate production then the l India-wide charge into urea. At least its all fitting together now.

      • StephenP permalink
        September 22, 2022 10:11 pm

        Thank you Vernon E, you look to have had a very interesting career.

      • Vernon E permalink
        September 23, 2022 11:42 am

        Stephen: Thank you; yes I did. It was a great era to be a young chemical engineer.

  10. Carnot permalink
    September 20, 2022 3:45 pm

    The list is indeed exhaustive and no such list appears anywhere I know. The best place to start is with base chemicals. Ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, toluene , xylenes, ammonia, methanol and a few others. These are the building blocks that most petrochemical finished products are built from. That includes polymers, surface coatings (including the so called water based coatings), elastomers, detergents, lubricants, fibres, water treatments, biocides, pharmaceuticals, food packaging, paper chemicals and a host of other products.
    The best way to deal with these clowns is to ask them what they could not do without – what about a tootbrush. This short video gives an idea of the extent of our dependency.

    Forget bio options and carbon dioxide recycling. We could not produce enough energy to make these products.

  11. Robert Christopher permalink
    September 20, 2022 3:49 pm

    Processing a barrel of oil is like processing a side of beef: there is a limit to the production of each end product, whether it’s diesel, kerosene and pharmaceutical feedstock or prime sirloin, strewing steak or mince, and the price of each is adjusted in order to sell each in the right proportion, so that everything is sold to create the maximum revenue.
    With many other products, like bread, cakes and beer, or widgets, the ingredients are from multiple sources and can be ordered in whatever quantities required without any waste.
    I haven’t seen any discussion of this aspect of NET Zero policies.

    • Gamecock permalink
      September 20, 2022 9:12 pm

      I thought of this a few years ago when UK/EU back flipped into attacking diesel fueled vehicles after demanding them. Specifically, what is the refiner going to do with all that diesel that is going to get produced whether he wants it or not?

      • Vernon E permalink
        September 23, 2022 3:57 pm

        Burn it in gas turbine electricity generators.

    • Gamecock permalink
      September 20, 2022 9:20 pm

      Visitors to Vancouver, BC, Canada, are shocked at the sight of sulphur piles at Burrard Inlet.

      https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/p/AF1QipMMqy5XZsTatOhevZVv_j_ciwAbpH-T2bwPLP5M=h720

  12. ancientpopeye permalink
    September 20, 2022 4:14 pm

    Chortle, thought I’n never stop laughing?

  13. Stephen Lord permalink
    September 20, 2022 4:51 pm

    Central planning never works. Stop with the mandates and let the free market work.

  14. Jack Broughton permalink
    September 20, 2022 7:24 pm

    Carnot, thanks for your excellent notes on refinery practice and the problems of processing heavier crude oils. I was addressing the issue of reduced coal-based sulphur: most of which comes from flue gas scrubbing. A few years ago heavy fuel oil was traded widely and is far higher in sulphur than coal (3.5 – 5% cf 1 %) and using the same scrubbers would provide large amounts of sulphur using a low cost fuel to replace one that is at present in short supply. Did not refineries like Fawley manufacture (and burn) hfo in large quantities in their now long-gone power station?

    I’m probably being niaive to expect our leaders to understand real options.

  15. Dan permalink
    September 21, 2022 7:42 am

    Waste sulphur is contained in huge stockpiles which we have no idea how to effectively get rid off. The use of S is approx 10 times lower than its annual production which is why very few mines exist. Thus there will be quite some time to adapt. This is why the price of sulphur and sulphur related fertilizer products is so low, the raw material is so plentiful. It is not high on the list like say ethene.

    • Vernon E permalink
      September 21, 2022 12:29 pm

      Dan: my thoughts exactly but really only based on gut feeling. In times when I was younger the success of an economy was said to be judged on its production of sulphuric acid. But I don’t follow the proposition that sulphur based fertilisers should be lower than others – the basic raw material for all fertilisers remains natural gas (previously naphtha which should be brought back).

      • Dan permalink
        September 22, 2022 8:02 am

        At the moment none of the UK steelworks produce sulphur products as the business case for doing so via building a desulph plant on their coke ovens doesn’t work. The final product is not high value despite its ability to fit directly into the fertiliser supply chain. I know frawley has a sulphur facility, nit sure of the others though with the amount of natural gas around…

        Point is energy/NG is the cost as you say.

  16. September 21, 2022 8:27 am

    Sulphur is reducing itself by changing the ‘ph’ to a ‘f’.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: