Resource crisis: Sulphur shortage threatens food security and green technologies

Chemist demonstrates how Sulphuric Acid reacts on skin

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A vital resource for our industrial society, sulphuric acid is used in both the production of phosphorus fertilisers and the extraction from ores of rare metals like cobalt and nickel, which are used in the high-performance Li-ion batteries that are key to the green transition. According to the researchers, demand for sulphuric acid is projected to rise significantly from 246 to 400 million tonnes by the year 2040 as the world engages in more intense agricultural practices and simultaneously moves away from fossil fuels. The problem is that more than 80 percent of the world’s sulphur comes in the form of waste from the desulphurisation of crude oil and natural gas — a process undertaken to reduce the sulphur dioxide emissions that would otherwise contribute to the formation of acid rain.

As the world moves to decarbonise, the production of fossil fuels is expected to decrease, which will reduce the production of sulphur in turn.

Unless action is taken to begin reducing our dependence on sulphur, a massive increase in environmentally destructive mining will be required to fill the burgeoning resource gap.

According to the researchers, the move away from fossil fuels in tandem with increasing demand will result in a shortfall of between 100–320 million tonnes of sulphur annually, depending on how quickly decarbonisation progresses.

This is equivalent to 30–130 percent of our current supply, the researchers added.

Paper author and earth system scientist Professor Mark Maslin of UCL said: “Sulphur shortages have occurred before, but what makes this different is that the source of the element is shifting away from being a waste product of the fossil fuel industry.

“What we’re predicting is that as supplies of this cheap, plentiful, and easily accessible form of sulphur dry up, demand may be met by a massive increase in direct mining of elemental sulphur.

“This, by contrast, will be dirty, toxic, destructive, and expensive.

“Research is urgently needed to develop low-cost, low environment impact methods of extracting large quantities of elemental sulphur from the abundant deposits of sulphate minerals in the Earth’s crust.”

Prof. Maslin continued: “The international community should consider supporting and regulating sulphur mining to minimise the impacts of the transition and also to avoid cheap unethical production from distorting the market.”

Paper co-author and UCL Dr Simon Day added: “Our concern is that the dwindling supply could lead to a transition period when green tech outbids the fertiliser industry for the limited, more expensive sulphur supply, creating an issue with food production — particularly in developing countries.”

In their study, the researcher calculated three forward-looking demand scenarios for sulphuric acid from 2021 to 2040, with annual growth rates ranging from 1.8–2.47 percent.

They also explored several ways in which the world might reduce its sulphur dependence as part of the transition to post-fossil-fuel economies.

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These solutions include recycling phosphorus in wastewater for use in the fertiliser industry, and either increasing the recycling of lithium batteries or using lower energy capacity/weight ratio batteries that call for less sulphur in their production.

The team have also questioned whether it would make economic sense to begin investing in alternative sulphur production methods, a decision complicated by the fact it is challenging to predict how quickly the supply from desulphurisation will decrease.

However, the team said, recognising the looming sulphur crisis now gives time to develop national and international policies to help manage future demand, increase resource recycling and develop alternative, cheap sources.

The full findings of the study were published in The Geographical Journal.

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