Elemental Sulfur: One of the UAE’s Natural Resources
01 Jun 09:09 AMSector : Industry & Mining Country : UAE
By Dr Saeed Alhassan
The UAE will be the largest producer of elemental sulfur in the world in less than two years.
The rapid increase in production of sulfur is due to development of sour gas and oil fields in Abu Dhabi. These fields contain large quantities of hydrogen sulfide, which is a poisonous gas even in tiny quantities.
In addition, other sulfur-rich compounds are also present in different concentrations in these fields and they contribute to the formation of acid rain when oilbased fuels are combusted for transportation purposes. In developing these fields, it is critical to convert all sulfur-rich compounds into a less toxic and easily handled form. Elemental sulfur is the most stable and least risky of all forms of sulfur-rich compounds. Hence, elemental sulfur is an inevitable eventuality in oil and gas processing and hence is of great importance for the future of the Emirates.
It is interesting that throughout history elemental sulfur has not attracted attention on a public level due to its limited practicality as an element except in limited applications like medicinal applications and as pesticides. While sulfur and gold share a similar color, gold has always enjoyed a great deal of attention because of its metallic nature and its widespread use in several applications, from jewelry all the way to sophisticated applications in nanotechnology.
The fact that sulfur has limited application as an element has manifested itself in its price. Currently, the price of sulfur is $200 per ton, while gold is traded at a price of $45 million per ton. The huge disparity in the price is attributed to properties of sulfur and due to historic interest in gold compared to sulfur. Among these properties is the bad smell associated with sulfur compounds. Actually, pure elemental sulfur is odorless; the smell is due to the presence of small amount of other sulfur compounds (e.g. sulfur dioxide). In addition, elemental sulfur is nonmetallic, brittle and cannot be used as is in any large scale application or consumer products. Hence, the majority of sulfur applications are based on converting elemental sulfur into other chemicals through a series of reactions. Some of these applications are the vulcanization of natural rubber and production of sulfuric acid, which is one of the most widely produced and used chemicals in the world. Despite the high level of sulfuric acid production, the chemical can be recycled and reused and that lessen the demand for new sulfuric acid overall and ultimately lower demand for elemental sulfur.
The UAE is embarking on a new era of growth that has to be fueled with energy of all sources - both conventional and renewable. At current growth rates, all form of energies will be needed. Utilizing oil and gas resources will require production of large quantities of sulfur as by-product. This will be the norm for the next 30 years, where on average the UAE will produce 10 million tons of sulfur per year. At current prices, the revenues generated from selling sulfur directly to the open market will be $2 billion per year. However, the economy of scale leads us to believe that when increasing supply the price of the commodity will fall. To avoid such a drop, it is crucial for the UAE in general and the Abu Dhabi government in particular, which produces the majority of the UAE’s oil, to come up with solutions to stop such fall in prices since it makes the economics of expansion into new fields more difficult if sulfur will always be a byproduct in the production of oil and gas. One of these solutions has been already proposed by us in the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi: finding “novel” applications for sulfur.
Coming up with new applications for old or new chemicals has always been the case for many industries and for sulfur as well. It is known that a wave of new uses for sulfur were proposed in the USA during the 1970’s. This wave produced applications ranging from sulfur-based concrete, lithium-sulfur batteries, sulfur coatings and many more. Interestingly enough, the success of each new application varies widely and while the front runner so far is the sulfur concrete application, others are still under scientific research and scrutiny.
However, these applications have not improved the marketability of sulfur today because the supply is outpacing demand and because these applications have not attracted industrial interest over a wide scale. At the Petroleum Institute, we approach the problem by focusing on the fundamental understanding of the sulfur properties that lead us to propose new applications. Without fundamental understanding of the element, it will be difficult to propose potentially viable applications. In one of our applications we studied the thermal properties of sulfur and that lead us to utilize sulfur in composite formulation that has not been explored before; sulfur content as high as 20 percent leads to ab improvement in a composites mechanical properties by 14 percent. The proof of concept experiments is promising and we are currently evaluating the new formulation using state of the art techniques and equipment.
It is important to understand the needs to come up with applications for sulfur at this juncture. This is needed for two reasons. Firstly, the UAE focuses on building a knowledge based economy that requires innovation in several industries. Secondly, the UAE will have to maximize on its natural resources in a sustainable way. Sulfur is a natural resource for the UAE and it should be utilized in a sustainable way by investing in fundamental research on sulfur that will lead to improving the long term marketability of the element. The price of sulfur might not reach that of gold, but at least the yellow element should be a major contributor to the UAE’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the coming years.