Sulphur is found naturally as an element in pure state and as sulfate or sulfide minerals. Sulphur crystals are easily differentiated by mineral collectors for their unique and bright colored polyhedron shapes. Earlier sulfur was extracted majorly from salt domes where it occurs in pure form but now this method has been obsolete owing to the new technologies. Today, majority of sulphur is developed as a byproduct from sulphur containing contaminants from petroleum and natural gas. Commercial use of sulphur is carried out in fertilizers, due to high requirements in plants and in the manufacturing of sulphuric acid, an important chemical used in the industry. Various other use of elemental sulphur is found in fungicides and insecticides.
In the year 2010, global production of sulphur was at 67.80 million tones and that of pyrites was 6.1 million tones. Countries such as the U.S., Canada, Russia, China, Japan and Saudi Arabia were the major producers of sulphur. Finland and China were the major producers of pyrites. Elemental sulphur is obtained from the ores by conventional mining method i.e. Frasch method. It is also obtained as a byproduct from processing of sour natural gas, tar sand and sour crude refining. Sulphur recovered from refining processes accounts to 98% of world elemental sulphur production.
In Frasch method, majorly concentric pipes are used. The outer most pipe contains superheated water, that melts the sulphur and the inner most pipe is completely filled with hot compressed air which is used to create pressure and foam. Sulphur foam is then ejected through the centre pipe. Sulphur produced from Frasch process is 99.5% pure and it further needs no purification. Sulphur production from Frasch method for commercial scale was first carried out in Mexico and Brazil. Elemental sulphur is mined in Poland, Russia and China.
Sulphur is used to carry vulcanization process for rubber. It reacts directly with methane to generate carbon disulphide which is used to manufacture rayon and cellophane. Sulphur is mostly used as a precursor to many chemicals. Majority of the sulphur is transformed to sulphuric acid, which is vital to the world economy. Production and consumption of sulphuric acid is an indicator of a nation’s industrial development. The prime use of the sulphuric acid is in the manufacturing of Phosphatic fertilizer. Various other applications of sulphuric acid include wastewater processing, mineral extraction and oil refining. Sulphur compounds are utilized in the manufacturing of fungicides, agrichemicals, dyestuffs and detergents. For silver based photography, ammonium thiosulphate and sodium are used as fixing agents. Sulphites obtained from burning sulphur are used to bleach paper. It is used as preservatives in processed fruit products and dried fruit and as light producing medium in the rare lighting fixtures called as sulphur lamps. The sulphur lamps are very efficient lighting system in which light is produced by sulphur plasma.
Increasing investments and developing economies are the some of the key drivers of the global sulphur market. However, high cost to extract sulphur from the mining processes can prove to be fatal for the sulphur market. Owing to rapid industrialization taking place in Asia Pacific region large number of opportunities are there for sulphur market.
Some of the key players in the business of Sulphur are Ohio Sulphur Mining Company, Freeport Sulphur Company, Texas Gulf Sulphur Company and Merafe Resources Ltd among others.