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Message on sulfur to oil industry: pay now or suffer later

Bob Tippee
OGJ Editor

The oil and gas industry has taken over the global production of sulfur but, according to sulfur specialists, mistreats the yellow material as a byproduct best disposed of and otherwise ignored.

That approach will prove to have been short-sighted if, as some of the specialists say, supply continues to grow and traditional markets shrink.

Supply growth results from the need of refiners to slash the sulfur concentrations of gasoline and diesel fuel and from production increases from oil sands and other sources of low-quality crude.

Will the sulfur market expand correspondingly?

Not if oil and gas companies don’t develop new uses for the material, said members of a July 21 panel discussing the subject at the Oil Sands & Heavy Oil Technologies Conference in Calgary.

So far, the companies haven’t shown much interest.

“Big oil has not been a good master of the sulfur business,” declared Jim Hyne of HYJAY Research & Development, former dean of graduate studies at the University of Calgary. “They have not pushed new markets for sulfur.”

He received no argument on that point from other panelists, Paul Davis of Alberta Sulphur Research, Jerry d’Aquin of Con-Sul Inc., and Larry Marks of Lamar Corp., retired senior vice-president of marketing and transportation for Shell Canada Ltd.

Hyne said a primary market for sulfur, fertilizer, might shrink in the future if nuclear electric-arc furnaces displace sulfuric acid in the production of soluble phosphate.

That’s not a certain prospect, other panelists pointed out. What’s more certain, they agreed, is supply growth.

Without new uses for sulfur, the already strong need for storage will grow, raising environmental issues related to siting and safety issues related to transport and handling.

Hyne said there’s no absence of ideas about new uses for sulfur. He noted that sulfur can be reacted with carbon dioxide to produce construction material. It’s being studied for use in superconductors and in crystalline coatings able to increase reflectivity of windows and lower energy use.

But developing those applications to commercial viability requires investment.

“My appeal to big oil,” Hyne said, “is pay now or suffer later.”

(Online July 23, 2010; author’s e-mail:

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