The global sulphur markets are covered weekly by ICIS in The Market. The Market gives you the global view on the fertilizer market, and is tailored for the international fertilizers business. The commentary includes supply and demand trends, production news, shipping enquiries, fertilizer prices and price drivers and fluctuations.
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Strong demand and crushed lump sulphur shortages coupled with lower Middle East operating rates to cause shortages of sulphur in China through much of the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, weakening consumption from the end of November saw the market rebalance to an extent. In India domestic supply was tight, forcing players to strongly return to the import market by the end of the quarter.
China saw high consumption throughout the second-half of 2017, but particularly from October to late-November which caused prices to jump signi¬ficantly. From 5 October-16 November, China sulphur import prices rose by 55-56%. The strong demand was partially linked to downstream players moving some 2018 production forward to avoid a new environmental tax, which comes in to effect on 1 January, and in part due to restocking ahead of the Lunar New Year. Demand fell back once lead times meant that purchases would not arrive in time for these two purposes. In India, buyers moved to the sidelines through much of the quarter amid a perceived pricing bubble in China, nevertheless, by December consumers were forced to re-enter the import market.
In the Mediterranean, supply from local producers was plentiful due to high refi¬nery run rates. Nevertheless, this came as global supply tightened due to low operating rates in the Middle East, and the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the US. In Russia, Austrofin Gazprom Export cancelled Q4 contracts because of low availability, tightening the Black Sea region.
In the Mediterranean, reliance on domestic product meant that buyers stepped out of the import market through most of the quarter. Traders meanwhile, were diverting material to other more profi¬table regions. Mainland Europe supply and demand remained balanced throughout the quarter.
Supply in the US Gulf remained strained after Hurricane Harvey in the third quarter. Additionally, some re¬finery maintenances were ongoing. As of the beginning of Q4, supply in Western Canada was higher than the previous year. This was despite production problems at the end of Q4 from Endbridge and Syncrude.
Little change in demand was seen during the quarter. A spate of China vessels departed from Vancouver at the end of the year.
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Sulphur (S) is an important element in nature. As a constituent of proteins, has a similar nutrient value to nitrogen (N) and is essential to the life of plants, with its lack causing similar effects to the lack of nitrogen.
Sulphur is used in fertilizers, normally in the form of ammonium sulphate, where there is a deficiency of sulphur in the soil.
Sulphur is also used to make sulphuric acid from sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide is used to make dyes and as a bleaching agent.
Sulphur has a pale yellow appearance and has a slight odour of rotten egg. It is insoluble in water, but soluble in carbon disulphide.
It is found in meteorites, volcanoes, hot springs, and as galena, gypsum, Epsom salts and barite. It is also a minor constituent of fats, body fluids and skeletal minerals.
There are two key sources of processing sulphur. The first is the Frasch process, where sulphur is extracted from underground without mining it.
In the Frasch process, underground deposits of sulphur are forced to the surface using superheated water and steam (to melt the sulphur) and compressed air. This gives molten sulphur, which is allowed to cool in large basins. Purity can reach 99.5%. The process is energy intense.
Another source of sulphur is as a by-product of processing crude oil and natural gas, which contain hydrogen sulphide. It is produced in crush lump, flake and prilled form.
Key industrial uses of sulphur includes production of black gunpowder, asphalt, vulcanisation of natural rubber, as a fungicide and as a fumigant, use in the bleaching of dried fruits and for paper products.