The global sulphuric acid 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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There has been a heavy smelter maintenance schedule during 2017 and this has kept supply tight throughout the year and led to prices broadly trending upwards. This was particularly true in Asia, where there was additionally a back-log of orders held over from 2016. Across Asia, China remains the only country understood to have significant sulphur availability. Nevertheless, during the fourth quarter China exports fell back sharply because a spike in upstream sulphur prices meant that exports were unworkable – China typically produces sulphuric acid from burning sulphur rather than smelter sulphuric acid.
Demand in Asia remains difficult to gauge because of the absence of available volumes. Nevertheless, demand from Chile increased at the end of the fourth quarter. Because of a spate of industrial action in Chile and Peru which has led to increased demand from the country. Workers at Enami’s Piapote copper smelter began industrial action on 13 December. Workers at Southern Copper’s Toquepala, Cuajone, and Ilo smelters in Peru are understood to still be striking. Teck’s Quebrada Blanca copper mine in Northern Chile saw industrial action from The Union of Workers of Quebrada Blanca on 13 December, which is one of three unions at the site. Quebrada Blanco’s supergene deposit has been exhausted and production was already at reduced rates as a result, with production at the mine not expected to continue beyond mid-2019 dependent on copper prices and cost reduction efforts. High copper prices throughout 2017 have led to Chilean mines running as hard as they can. Copper prices have increased by more than 50% in the past 12 months.
European producer continued to prefer to concentrate on domestic contract markets during the fourth quarter, which combined with the heavy 2017 maintenance schedule kept spot availability from the region limited. Nevertheless, contract market supply and demand remained broadly balanced.
Demand remained stable throughout the fourth quarter in Europe. Nevertheless, tight global sulphuric acid supply and high copper prices kept overseas demand for European product strong.
Supply was significantly decreased for the entire quarter, owing to an explosion at Rio Tinto’s Kennecott operations in Utah that caused them to declare force majeure on sulphuric acid. Additionally, Chemtrade announced it has stopped production at its Augusta facility, though little product from there was sold on the merchant market.
There were no significant demand changes in the quarter, aside from shifted demand that suppliers reported while Kennecott was not supplying its regular contracts outside of Agrium.
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Sulphuric acid is a strong mineral acid with a wide range of uses in industry. Pure sulphuric acid is a colourless, viscous liquid that can cause severe burns and serious eye and skin damage, and is therefore classified as corrosive or hazardous.
A key use of sulphuric acid is for the production of fertilizers. Other uses include the production of carbon disulphide, sulphur dioxide and phosphorous pentasulphide; pulp and paper; and rubber vulcanising. Sulphuric acid can also be used in its diluted form as battery acid for the automotive sector.
Sulphuric acid is colourless in appearance and of an oily liquid consistency. It is both corrosive and toxic and has the ability to cause serious burns. In addition, it is harmful through inhalation, ingestion and through skin contact.