Sulphur can be an elemental part of the new knowledge economy

If you were to ask any resident of the UAE about Etihad Rail, he or she might vividly recall news articles or pictures about the railway and perhaps shed light on the historical significance of such a big infrastructure project.

But if you asked him or her: “What is the first thing this railway will transport?” the answer would be a long silence. The answer is nothing but bright yellow sulphur.

Sulphur is element number 16 in the periodic table and has an important role in our lives. It has one of the most distinctive chemistries among the elements and is vital in producing gunpowder, rubber, fertilizers and other chemical compounds.

Etihad Rail is in operation with just one major initial objective: to transport elemental sulphur from remote fields such as Shah and Habshan to Ruwais for export.

We reached this point because of an increase in domestic energy demand, in the country and in Abu Dhabi in particular. This demand requires investment in sour gasfields, which contain significant amounts of hydrogen sulphide (a toxic gas with an odour similar to rotten egg), carbon dioxide and natural gas, mainly methane. Development of these fields is done by separating hydrogen sulphide, an undesired product because of its toxicity, from natural gas, followed by converting hydrogen sulphide into elemental sulphur. This conversion is a must before natural gas is used in generating electricity.

The estimated future production of the element in the UAE is close to 10 million tonnes a year, which will place the country as the top producer of sulphur in the world.

The amount of sulphur expected to be produced from Shah field alone is close to 3 million tonnes a year, equivalent to the yearly production of sulphur for the entire country of Japan.

The conventional wisdom tells us that being known as the largest producer of a vital commodity such as sulphur is good news, but the economics of sulphur showed that this element is traded at modest prices. Sulphur spot prices hover near Dh600 to Dh1,200 per tonne, compared to Dh140 million per tonne for gold. These prices of sulphur are low compared to the significant investment required to separate sulphur from natural gas in the first place.

Further, the economics of scale show that the price of sulphur will go down if more of it is produced. This scenario is already happening, as more sulphur is currently produced than consumed. It is important for the UAE to work on solutions to mitigate the issue of sulphur prices through various approaches, and chief among them is research to create new value for sulphur through the development of novel applications.

At the Petroleum Institute, we have been working on projects to solve the above issue for more than three years. With support from Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and its group of companies, we were able to come up with novel applications for sulphur that can not only be used immediately but can also support a continuous line of home-grown technologies that contribute to the Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 plan for a knowledge-based economy.

Among the most promising applications is using sulphur in fabrication of thermoplastic-based nanocomposites, which can lower the cost of manufacturing materials such as polythene and polystyrene. A patent application has been filed for this invention with support from the Abu Dhabi Technology Development Committee.

While the list of proof-of-concept experiments has mushroomed in our lab in the past year, the outlook is promising scientifically, technologically and economically. Our focus is on novel applications of the element and not on classical ideas and applications that have been reported in the scientific and business domains.

The reasons for this approach are two-fold. On the one hand, it is the right time for the UAE to be an exporter of finished products and not just raw materials. On the other, approaching the problem from the most fundamental aspect is the most rewarding endeavour from a research and development point of view.

During the UAE’s Year of Innovation in 2015, the development of new applications for elemental sulphur holds promise for the country’s economy in the long run. The first passenger on board Etihad Rail is one of the most important ones.

Saeed Alhassan Alkhazraji is an assistant professor in the department of chemical engineering and the director of the Gas Research Centre at the Petroleum Institute.

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