A projected shortage of sulfuric acid, a crucial chemical in our modern industrial society, could stifle green technology advancement and threaten global food security, according to a new study published today in the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) journal The Geographical Journal.
As green technology booms and agriculture intensifies, the study highlights that global demand for sulfuric acid is set to rise significantly from ‘246 to 400 million tonnes’ by 2040. The researchers estimate that this will result in a shortfall in annual supply of between 100 and 320 million tonnes - between 40 and 130% of current supply - depending on how quickly decarbonisation occurs.
A vital part of modern manufacturing, sulfuric acid is required for the production of phosphorus fertilisers that help feed the world, and for extracting rare metals from ores essential to the rapidly required green economy transition, like cobalt and nickel used in high-performance Li-ion batteries.
Currently, over 80% of the global sulfur supply is in the form of sulfur waste from the desulfurisation of crude oil and natural gas that reduces the sulfur dioxide gas emissions that cause acid rain. However, decarbonisation of the global economy to deal with climate change will significantly reduce the production of fossil fuels - and subsequently the supply of sulfur.
This study, led by researchers at University College London (UCL), is the first to identify this major issue. The authors suggest that unless action is taken to reduce the need for this chemical, a massive increase in environmentally damaging mining will be required to fill the resulting resource demand.
Study lead author, Professor Mark Maslin (UCL Geography), said: “Sulfur 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 sulfur dry up, demand may be met by a massive increase in direct mining of elemental sulfur. This, by contrast, will be dirty, toxic, destructive, and expensive.
“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. 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.”
Study co-author Dr Simon Day (UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction) 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 sulfur supply, creating an issue with food production particularly in developing countries.”
To determine their findings, the researchers estimated three sulfuric acid demand scenarios from 2021 to 2040, based on historic and forecast demand, with annual growth rates ranging from 1.8% to 2.4%.
The authors also explore several ways that demand for sulfur could be reduced as part of the transition to post-fossil fuel economies, including recycling phosphorus in wastewater for the fertiliser industry, by increasing the recycling of lithium batteries, or by using lower energy capacity/weight ratio batteries, as these require less sulfur for their production.
In addition, they prompt crucial questions about whether it would make economic sense to invest in alternative production methods, given it is not currently possible to predict how quickly the supply of sulfur as a waste product from oil and gas desulfurisation will decrease as decarbonisation of the global economy is only just starting.
However, they conclude that by recognising the sulfur crisis now, national and international policies can be developed to manage future demand, increase resource recycling, and develop alternative cheap supplies that have minimal environmental and social impact.
For further media enquiries please contact the Society’s Press Officer, Lucy Preston, on +44 (0)77 1478 3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The paper ‘Sulfur: a potential resource crisis that could stifle green technology and threaten food security as the world decarbonizes’ will be published online here on 22 August 2022.
An advance version of the paper, plus figures 1 – 3, can be downloaded from here. This version of the article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review, but is uncorrected awaiting some final non-material changes, which may lead to differences between this version and the Final Version of Record. Please cite this article as: Geographical Journal, doi:10.1111/geoj.12475.
The Geographical Journal publishes articles and commentaries that make a major conceptual and/or empirical contribution to stimulating or shaping future public and policy-orientated agendas across human and physical geography. First published in 1831, historically it has been the journal of record of the Society. More information about the journal can be found here.
The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) is the learned society and professional body for geography. Formed in 1830, our Royal Charter of 1859 is for 'the advancement of geographical science'. Today, we deliver this objective through developing, supporting and promoting geographical research, expeditions and fieldwork, education, public engagement, and geography input to policy. We aim to foster an understanding and informed enjoyment of our world. We hold the world's largest private geographical collection and provide public access to it. We have a thriving Fellowship and membership and offer the professional accreditation 'Chartered Geographer’. www.rgs.org
UCL is a diverse global community of world-class academics, students, industry links, external partners, and alumni. Our powerful collective of individuals and institutions work together to explore new possibilities. Since 1826, we have championed independent thought by attracting and nurturing the world's best minds. Our community of more than 43,800 students from 150 countries and over 14,300 staff pursues academic excellence, breaks boundaries and makes a positive impact on real world problems. We are consistently ranked among the top 10 universities in the world and are one of only a handful of institutions rated as having the strongest academic reputation and the broadest research impact. We have a progressive and integrated approach to our teaching and research – championing innovation, creativity and cross-disciplinary working. We teach our students how to think, not what to think, and see them as partners, collaborators and contributors. For almost 200 years, we are proud to have opened higher education to students from a wide range of backgrounds and to change the way we create and share knowledge. We were the first in England to welcome women to university education and that courageous attitude and disruptive spirit is still alive today. We are UCL. www.ucl.ac.uk
By placing a booking, you are permitting us to store and use your (and any other attendees) details in order to fulfil the booking.
We will not use your details for marketing purposes without your explicit consent.
You must be a member holding a valid Society membership to view the content you are trying to access. Please login to continue.
Join us today, Society membership is open to anyone with a passion for geography
Cookies on the RGS website