Green economy could lead to sulfur shortages – study
According to an article published in The geographic review.
Sulfuric acid is needed for the production of phosphorus fertilizers and for the extraction of battery metals such as nickel and cobalt from ores.
The recent study points out that the global demand for sulfuric acid is expected to increase significantly, from 246 to 400 million metric tons by 2040, due to more intensive agriculture and the world moving away fossil fuels.
The authors estimate this will result in an annual supply shortfall of between 100 and 320 million metric tons – between 40% and 130% of current supply – depending on how quickly decarbonization occurs.
Currently, more than 80% of the world’s sulfur supply comes in the form of waste sulfur from the desulfurization of crude oil and natural gas, which reduces sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid rain . However, decarbonizing the global economy to address climate change will significantly reduce fossil fuel production and, therefore, sulfur supply.
The paper, led by researchers at University College London, is the first to identify this problem. The authors suggest that unless steps are taken to reduce the need for this chemical, a massive increase in mining will be required to meet the resulting resource demand.
“Shortages of sulfur have happened before, but what makes this different is that the source of the element is no longer a waste product from the fossil fuel industry,” lead researcher Mark Maslin said in A press release. “What we anticipate is that as supplies of this cheap, plentiful and easily accessible form of sulfur dry up, demand could be met by a massive increase in direct extraction of elemental sulfur. This, on the other hand, will be dirty, toxic, destructive and expensive.
According to Maslin, research is urgently needed to develop low-cost, low-environmental-impact methods to extract large amounts of elemental sulfur from the abundant deposits of sulfate minerals in the earth’s crust.
He believes that the international community should consider supporting and regulating sulfur mining to minimize the impacts of the transition and also to prevent cheap and unethical production from distorting the market.
“Our concern is that the dwindling supply could lead to a transition period when green technology outbids the fertilizer industry for the limited supply of more expensive sulfur, creating a problem with food production, especially in developing countries,” said the paper’s co-author, Simon Day.
How the estimates were made
To determine their conclusions, the researchers estimated three sulfuric acid demand scenarios from 2021 to 2040, based on historical and forecast demand, with annual growth rates ranging from 1.8% to 2.4%.
The authors also explored several ways to reduce sulfur demand as part of the transition to post-fossil fuel economies, including recycling phosphorus in wastewater for the fertilizer industry, increasing recycling of lithium batteries or the use of lower capacity/energy weight. ratio batteries, as these require less sulfur for their production.
Furthermore, they raise crucial questions as to whether it would make economic sense to invest in alternative production methods, given that it is currently not possible to predict how fast the supply of sulfur as that waste from oil and gas desulfurization will decrease as the decarbonization of the global economy only begins.