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Scientists warn that global sulfur shortage threatens food security and the development of green technologies

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News Tech: Scientists have warned that a sulphuric acid shortage might impede the development of green technology and jeopardise the world’s food security.

But according to University College London (UCL) researchers, by 2040, demand for sulfuric acid is expected to increase from 246 to 400 million metric tonnes.

The manufacturing of phosphorous fertilisers and the extraction of rare metals from ores, such as cobalt and nickel, which are used in high-performance lithium-ion batteries, require the usage of sulfuric acid, a key chemical in modern industry.

In order to lessen sulphur dioxide gas emissions that contribute to acid rain, crude oil and natural gas are currently desulphurized, providing more than 80% of the world’s sulphur supply.

“This, by contrast, will be dirty, toxic, destructive, and expensive”

Based on historical and projected demand, the researchers calculated three scenarios for sulphuric acid consumption from 2021 to 2040, with annual growth rates ranging from 1.8 to 2.4%. They proposed a number of solutions to meet the demand for sulphur, such as increasing the recycling of li-ion batteries or switching to lower energy capacity to weight ratio batteries, which use less sulphur during production. Other solutions included recycling phosphorous from waste water for use in the fertiliser industry.

“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,” Prof Maslin added. “The international community should consider supporting and regulating sulphur mining to minimize the impacts of the transition and also to avoid cheap unethical production from distorting the market.”

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The researchers also questioned whether investing in alternative sulphur production techniques would be financially advantageous, particularly given that it is currently impossible to predict how quickly the supply of sulphur as a waste product from oil and gas desulphurization will decrease given that the global economy is only recently starting to decarbonize. “Our concern is that the dwindling supply could lead to a transition period when green tech outbids the fertiliser industry for the scarcer, more expensive sulphur supply, creating an issue with food production particularly in developing countries,” said study co-author Dr. Simon Day of the Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction at UCL.

The Geographical Journal has the study published there.

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