Why Procurement Should Secure Sulfuric Acid Supply
- Fertilizer and electronics industries are driving the demand for sulfuric acid
- Sulfur supply is likely to be constrained due to low refinery run rates amid the pandemic and the transition to renewable energy
- Procurement organizations should ensure supply continuity by finding alternative suppliers and lock in long-term contracts
Sulfuric acid – the corrosive, colorless and odorless chemical -- is today used as a raw material in a wide range of industrial processes and manufacturing operations. More than 50% of the overall sulfuric acid supply is used in the production of phosphate fertilizers and nearly 10% for metal processing. It is also used in petroleum refining and the production of inorganic pigment, paper and industrial organic chemicals.
Sulfur supply constraints
Most of the sulfur used to make sulfuric acid is sourced from crude oil refineries since sulfur is a byproduct of oil refining. Petroleum and gas industries produce more than 45% and 48% of global sulfur, respectively.
However, since 2020, the global availability of sulfuric acid has been tight due to a shortage of feedstock (sulfur) to manufacture the chemical.
As COVID-19 pandemic broke out, sulfur production fell due to lower demand for crude oil derivatives amid restrictions on travel and movement of goods across the world.
The sulfur supply situation has somewhat eased with demand for and production of fossil fuels bouncing back in the second quarter of 2021.
Sulfuric acid supply outlook
In the short term, with the spread of new COVID-19 variants and possible lockdowns, refinery run rates may dip again, reducing the output of sulfur.
In the long term too, the supply of sulfuric acid may face challenges due to the rapid transition from refinery-produced fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The International Maritime Organization’s regulations implemented on January 1, 2020 caps the sulfur content in marine fuels at 0.5% from 3.5% previously. Due to this, refineries across the world have already started to switch to crudes with lower sulfur content. This has lowered the generation of sulfur as a byproduct from refineries. Thus, if such regulations are made more stringent, the supply of sulfuric acid will further decline in the coming years.
At the same time, the demand for fertilizers is increasing, with sales of sulfur fertilizers expected to grow 3% by 2031.
In addition, the demand for sulfuric acid is rising in the electronics industry that used the chemical to make semiconductors, printed circuit board panels, and integrated circuits, used in smartphones and LED and LCD televisions.
China, currently the largest market for electronics-grade sulfuric acid, has seen a major increase in the production of electronics items and is likely to propel buying activity for the chemical in the long term.
Given these uncertainties around sulfur production, procurement organizations should look for alternative sources to meet their needs.
Increasing sourcing of sulfur from mines or from metallurgical industries, where it is produced from pyrites, is one alternative.
At the same time, category managers should focus on identifying suppliers located in geographies where sulfuric acid production is expected to increase in the near future, such as the Middle East, South-East Asia, and North Africa, and invest in long-term contracts with suppliers.
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Santosh has over 12 years of experience managing large-scale procurement transformation engagements for leading Fortune 500 companies.
At GEP, he’s responsible for developing new products and services by incorporating complex aspects of mobile interfaces, social media, cloud computing and big data.LET'S TALK