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Resource crisis: Sulphur shortage threatens food security and green technologies | Science | News


An important resource for our industrial society, sulphuric acid is utilized in each the production of phosphorus fertilisers and the extraction from ores of rare metals like cobalt and nickel, that are utilized in the high-performance Li-ion batteries which are key to the green transition. In line with the researchers, demand for sulphuric acid is projected to rise significantly from 246 to 400 million tonnes by the 12 months 2040 because the world engages in additional intense agricultural practices and concurrently moves away from fossil fuels. The issue is that greater than 80 percent of the world’s sulphur is available in the shape of waste from the desulphurisation of crude oil and natural gas — a process undertaken to cut back the sulphur dioxide emissions that will otherwise contribute to the formation of acid rain.

Because the world moves to decarbonise, the production of fossil fuels is predicted to diminish, which is able to reduce the production of sulphur in turn.

Unless motion is taken to start reducing our dependence on sulphur, an enormous increase in environmentally destructive mining will probably be required to fill the burgeoning resource gap.

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

That is comparable to 30–130 percent of our current supply, the researchers added.

Paper creator 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 low-cost, plentiful, and simply accessible type of sulphur dry up, demand could also be met by an enormous increase in direct mining of elemental sulphur.

“This, in contrast, will probably 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 within the Earth’s crust.”

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

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

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

Additionally they explored several ways during which the world might reduce its sulphur dependence as a part of the transition to post-fossil-fuel economies.

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These solutions include recycling phosphorus in wastewater to be used within the fertiliser industry, and either increasing the recycling of lithium batteries or using lower energy capability/weight ratio batteries that decision for less sulphur of their production.

The team have also questioned whether it might make economic sense to start investing in alternative sulphur production methods, a call complicated by the actual fact it’s difficult to predict how quickly the availability from desulphurisation will decrease.

Nevertheless, the team said, recognising the looming sulphur crisis now gives time to develop national and international policies to assist manage future demand, increase resource recycling and develop alternative, low-cost sources.

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

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