A resource 'crisis' is around the corner — but it's not too late to stop

As the world tries to wean itself off fossil fuels, scientists warn another resource ‘crisis’ could be looming.

Efforts to switch to renewable energy sources could drive a massive shortage of sulphur: a cheap and plentiful byproduct of fossil fuel processing that’s used to make all kinds of products from detergents to drugs.

A key ingredient in sulphuric acid, the chemical is also crucial to modern-day fertilisers and green technologies like electric cars.

As demand for these products grow and sulphur supplies fall, researchers from University College London say a major shortfall could be looming.

They say annual demand for sulphuric acid could grow from more than 246 million tonnes to more than 400 million by 2040, leaving a shortfall of between 100 and 320 million tonnes.

But with the right policies, recycling programmes and alternative supply routes, this impending crisis is not inevitable, they add.

At the moment, 80% of the sulphur is extracted from fossil fuels, with a much smaller amount gathered by miners. While directly mining more of the chemical could plug some of expected supply gap, researchers say this isn’t a viable option.

They argue it would seriously damage the natural environments where sulphur is found comes from, the researchers say.

‘What we’re predicting is that as supplies of this cheap, plentiful, and easily accessible form of sulfur dry up, demand may be met by a massive increase in direct mining of elemental sulphur,’ said lead author professor Mark Maslin

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

In addition to its environmental burden, sulphur mining carries serious humanitarian costs. This back-breaking work is performed in parts of China and Indonesia, where it’s nicknamed ‘Devil’s gold’ because of how dangerous it is.

Workers at the active Ijen volcano in Java, for example, scale thousands of meters every day to reach the crater, where they mine great chunks of the yellow chemical. After carrying kilos of sulphur out of the volcano by hand, they typically make a handful of dollars a day.

It’s dangerous work that exposes the miners to noxious gases throughout the day. But better extraction methods and regulation could help shore up sulphur supplies ahead of the predicted decline.

‘Research is urgently needed to develop low-cost, low environmental impact methods of extracting large quantities of elemental sulfur from the abundant deposits of sulfate minerals in the Earth’s crust,’ Maslin added.

‘The international community should consider supporting and regulating sulfur mining to minimise the impacts of the transition and also to avoid cheap unethical production from distorting the market.’

Whatever its nature, the researchers fear this transition could also leave agricultural sulphur supplies lacking.

Study co-author Dr Simon Day said: ‘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.’

But by taking steps to prepare for an sulphur shortage now, the scientists say these potential pitfalls could be avoided.

Their research, published in The Geographical Journal, suggests the international community considers investing in phosphorus recycling from wastewater to shore up the fertiliser industry and increases the recycling of lithium batteries, amid a range of possible solutions.

Developing policies to manage sulphur production and distribution, as well as sustainable techniques to extract it, could help stop the crisis in its tracks.

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