Kazakhstan Chamber of Commerce in the USA


New uses for sulphur solve ecological problems 1

Posted on April 02, 2010 by KazCham

OVER RECENT YEARS, more than eight million tonnes of yellow sulphur has stacked up around Tengiz and  other North Caspian oil and gas sites. However, with  new technologies being developed and implemented, sulphur is in demand and the stacks are shrinking.

Rising high above the flat steppe, the ‘sulphur  mountains’ are the inevitable by-product of  processing plants that strip sulphur and other impurities from the corrosive, high-pressure oil  brought to the surface from 5km below the surfaces.

At Balkhash, on the shores of the eponymous crescent-shaped lake, nearly 2,000km east, clouds of  poisonous sulphur dioxide and other gases used to be released into the atmosphere from copper smelting  operations at the country’s biggest non-ferrous  mining complex. But yesterday’s ecological embarrassments, which  cost oil companies such as Chevron and Exxon and  copper miner Kazakhmys tens of millions of dollars a  year in fines from environmental protection agencies  and local authorities, have been turned into money- spinning sidelines. New technologies are in place that are processing sulphur and finding new uses for the inert, and once virtually worthless, yellow powder.

New uses include adding sulphur to bitumen and  other road-making materials to improve the climate  resistance of road surfaces. Pioneered by Shell in  Canada, which has a similar climate, the sulphur- based additives offer a promising new market close to  home as Kazakhstan prepares to invest heavily in new  highways, including a motorway from China to Europe.

But the really important new market to emerge is  the uranium mining industry, which increasingly uses  sulphuric acid as a solvent in the in situ leach mining  technology pioneered by Kazatomprom, soon to  become the world’s largest producer of the radioactive  mineral that powers nuclear power stations.

Sulphur prices have risen sharply as a result of  these new markets and growing demand from  traditional users of sulphur as a raw material  for agricultural fertilisers. The storage and  transportability of sulphur has also been improved by pelletising the compacted powder in ways that make  it much easier to handle.

Tengiz, in which Chevron is the major shareholder  and operator, is currently selling more sulphur than it  is producing, despite a sharp rise in output from a $5  billion investment, which has doubled oil production  to 25 million tonnes a year from the giant onshore  field. Rising demand for the yellow stuff is steadily  slicing away the sulphur mountains, whose constant  growth was a major headache a few years ago.

In the meantime, a $130 million investment  in a new sulphuric acid plant at the giant Kazakhmys copper smelter, beside Lake Balkhash,  has transformed toxic fumes from smelting into  1.2 million tonnes of marketable sulphuric acid a  year, using technology designed by the Chemetics  subsidiary of Canada’s Aker Kvaerner.

Kazakhmys, quoted on the London Stock Exchange  since 2005, was hard hit by the sharp fall in global  copper and other metal prices last year, before  recovering on Chinese buying. But it has been partially  able to offset the decline in copper and zinc revenues  thanks to higher global prices for the gold refined as a  by-product of smelting polymetallic copper ores – and  a modest new source of income from sulphuric acid.

While the sulphur price in some markets has risen ten-fold, around $500 per tonne in recent years, the  local price is barely a tenth of that, reflecting the  isolation of most uranium and other mines and the  prohibitive costs of transporting competing product  from other suppliers. Kazakhmys sells 99 per cent  of its sulphur output to third parties, most of it to  Kazatomprom, which has several uranium mines in  the Balkhash area using the in situ leaching method.

The ecological benefits, however, are massive. As recently as 2006, Kazakhmys, which is committed to  achieving international safety and environmental  standards, struggled to cut its emissions through  conventional abatement technology. This helped cut emissions by 9 per cent in 2007, but it still emitted a  massive 706,000 tonnes into the atmosphere before  the new plant permitted a six-fold reduction in  noxious discharges.

Kazatomprom, meanwhile, mixes the sulphuric  acid with hydrogen peroxide to produce a powerful  solvent, which it injects into uranium bearing  deposits deep underground. The new technology,  developed in-house, cuts out the need for traditional  surface or deep mines – both of which have a much  heavier environmental impact than leaching. Taken together, the big reduction in toxic gas emissions  by Kazakhmys and more environmentally friendly  uranium mining from Kazatomprom represent two  big advances in tackling Kazakhstan’s Soviet legacy of environmental neglect.

Invest in Kazakhstan An official publication of the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2009. Pages:74-75.

↑ Top