Could the switch to renewable energy create a global sulphur shortage?

26 August 2022

Global efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels may inadvertently create a sulphur shortage, according to new research by experts.

This is the warning from University College of London professor Mark Maslin who argues that as sulphur is a byproduct of the oil and gas industry – where it is removed to prevent acid rain – clean technology deployment risks a global shortage of sulphuric acid unless preventative action is taken.

Sulphuric acid is a vital ingredient in many modern manufacturing processes. It is used in the production of fertilisers as well as in the extraction of minerals used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries.

But in a paper published by The Geographical Journal, Maslin and his research team argued the pace of decarbonisation is such that global supply of sulphuric acid will soon be outpaced by demand, and action must be taken to avoid a resource crisis within just 10 years.

They predict total demand for sulphuric acid will rise from the current 246m tonnes to around 400m tonnes by 2040.

This heightened demand will come as the source of 80% of sulphur supply – derived from waste streams of oil and gas production – faces a decline due to decarbonisation efforts.

Overall, the paper calculates the world could be facing an annual shortfall of sulphur supply of between 100 and 320 tonnes by 2040, equivalent to 40% and 130% of current supply levels.

In the paper he wrote: "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 cheap, plentiful and easily accessible form of sulphur dry up, demand may be met by a massive increase in direct mining of elemental sulphur. This, by contrast, will be dirty, toxic, destructive, and expensive.”

Overall, the paper implores governments to recognise a looming "sulphur crisis" and enact policies to accelerate the development of alternative sources of sulphur extraction.

The paper said: "Research is urgently needed to develop low-cost, low-environmental impact methods of extracting large quantities of elemental sulphur from the abundant deposits of sulphate minerals in the Earth's crust. The international community should consider supporting and regulating sulphur mining to minimise the impacts of the transition and also to avoid cheap, unethical production from distorting the market."

It is not the first time the 'greening' of the global economy is predicted to generate new supply problems. In McKinsey’s recent analysis of a Net Zero 2050 scenario – where oil and gas production volumes would be between 55-70% lower than they are today – it warned that big shortages in EV batteries could arise, where battery-electric and fuel cell-electric cars increase from 5% of new-car sales in 2020 to virtually 100% by that year.

Predictions suggest the rapid expansion of green technologies will lead to cobalt demand increasing 460%, nickel 99%, and neodymium 37% by 2050.

McKinsey also suggested production of hydrogen and biofuels would need to increase more than ten-fold between 2021 and 2050, and $275tn of cumulative spending on physical assets would be needed over the next three decades.

The transition, it argued, could also lead to asset stranding, whereby existing physical assets are either underutilised or retired before the end of their useful life.

Maslin concluded: “By recognising the sulphur crisis now, we can develop national and international policies to manage future sulphur demand, increase resource recycling, and develop alternative cheap supplies which have minimal environmental and social impact.”

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