CLARK: Fossil fuel, sulphur and global population

By on June 8, 2017
A big chunk of sulphur. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

By: Peter Clark

As we are checking the portals of social media for the latest pronouncements of our favourite politicians and celebrities, while consuming a nutritional snack no doubt, not many of us realize that all of these activities rely on sulphur. That sulphur originates almost exclusively from processing of oil and gas and, without it, agricultural output would plummet and our electronic world could not exist. Oil and gas, as well as being an energy supply, provide materials which makes our modern world tick.

As a young boy, I grew up in a world with 2.5 billion people. Now, somewhat older, I share that world with 7.4 billion. Of course, many factors have lead to this rapid increase in population but without our “daily bread,” population growth would have been impossible. The agricultural revolution of Norman Borlaug in the 1960s eliminated starvation in India and elsewhere by development of high yield grains. But efficient production of these crops would not have been possible without sulphur from fossil fuel because sulphur is needed to make phosphate fertilizers.

In 1960 global sulphur production was around 10 million tons per year and mostly obtained from deeply buried deposits using steam/air injection technology developed by Herman Frasch at the turn of the 20th century. Today, we produce and consume almost 63 million tons per year, more than 95 per cent of which is produced as a by-product of oil and gas processing. Fifty-five per cent of the sulphur is used in food production, another 35 per cent in recovery of nickel, uranium and industrial processes with the remainder devoted to manufacture of high-tech products for electronics including computers, cell phones, medical imaging equipment and components for wind turbines and solar cells.

Sulphur is a vital commodity, perhaps the most important one, as it sustains key aspects of an industrialized economy. Canada was once the world’s largest exporter of sulphur having had a big hand in developing technology to recover it from hydrogen sulphide associated with sour natural gas produced in Alberta and northeast British Columbia.

But the advent of low sulphur content shale gas has reduced sulphur output from gas in Canada from 6 to 2 million tons per year. Most probably, sulphur production from sour gas in Canada will cease within 10 years. Today, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Kazakhstan and Russia dominate sulphur exports with the USA already turning to Abu Dhabi for some of the sulphur needed to support its industrial and agricultural operations. China is, and has been, dependent on external sulphur production for many years importing as much as 12 million tons each year. However, on the home front, Canada will always have enough sulphur as processing of oil sands bitumen yields nearly 2 million tons per year, a figure well beyond our internal consumption.

Could the world population have reached 7.4 billion without sulphur and fertilizers from oil and gas? Can population growth continue if we curtail use of oil and gas? Could we sustain a population of 10 billion, the current UN projection for 2050, without sulphur from oil and gas? As mentioned in a previous column, sulphur, via sulphuric acid, is used to manufacture phosphoric acid which, when combined with ammonia (also a product of fossil fuel) is needed for ammonium phosphate fertilizer.

Manufacture of fertilizers from the products of the fossil fuel industry is most probably the easiest pathway to sustain a viable agricultural system. When we factor in the use of fossil fuel to power agricultural and food distribution equipment, it seems very unlikely that current world population could have been possible or now sustained without oil and gas. In particular, it would have proved very difficult to supply food to the very large populations of China and India without a fossil fuel augmented system. In China, over 500 million people lived in food-poverty in 1970. Today, most people in China receive adequate nutrition. Imagine the difference to today’s world economy if China was still struggling just to feed its people.

A major question as we strive to achieve a low carbon economy is how to feed the world without the sulphur, ammonia and fertilizers obtained using oil and gas. An alternative route using nitric acid, although possible, may not be practical. Could we go back to mining sulphur? Most probably not, as at best, this method only supplied 14 million tons per year (1970). By 2020, we will need 70 million tons each year to sustain agriculture and other industries, a figure likely not feasible from native sulphur deposits.

Moreover, Frasch technology needs a large energy supply for steam production which would probably be supplied by combustion of natural gas. Are there other sources of sulphur? Interestingly, the oil sands of Alberta and bitumen reserves in Venezuela are the world’s largest accessible sulphur reserves although because that sulphur is in a chemically combined form, these oils would have to be processed by conventional refining technology to obtain that sulphur. Alberta, alone could supply the world with sulphur for hundreds of years.

I will tell you more about our famous oil sands next time.

Peter Clark taught industrial chemistry for 30 years at the University of Calgary and worked with businesses in Canada, U.S., Europe and Central Asia on sulphur recovery and emissions control in the hydrocarbon sector. He now lives in the Nicola Valley.

One Comment

  1. BC Gray

    June 8, 2017 at 11:34 am

    Peter…..you forgot the sulphur in good old thermal Coal along with other necessary chemicals that can be achieved with the use of Coal

    Yet our masters seem to want to double dip and tax carbon at our expense.

    Great articles Peter keep them coming

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