Fire and Brimstone

Sulfur is one of a handful of elements that can be found in its native state, like silver, gold, and copper. The ancients knew about brimstone because they didn’t have to extract it—they could literally pick it up off the ground. With the emergence of industrial civilization the demand for sulfur and its products became so great that sulfide minerals became a more important source of sulfur. And since sulfides are the source of metals like iron, lead, and the aforementioned copper, extracting those materials produced sulfur as a by-product. Sulfuric acid, which is produced from sulfur, is among the most widely used of all industrial chemicals, something close to 200 million metric tons are produced annually worldwide. Most of it is used to make fertilizer from phosphate rock which means your food supply depends on sulfur.

In the old days people used fire for everything. They heated their homes, boiled water, and cooked food with fire. They also used fire for manufacturing processes such as smelting ores to obtain needed metals. Today we have electricity for that stuff, but we still get most of our electricity from fire. When we learned to burn coal and other fossil fuels in great quantities in order to generate electricity we moved our fires out of our homes and shops. Now we have special fireplaces (“power plants”) that burn better fuels than wood and burn them more efficiently. It was discovered early on that burning oil and gas created a great deal of pollution. Coal fires, in particular, are very messy. Soon people figured out that among the major pollutants were oxides of sulfur, and it was discovered that those chemicals could be recovered from the gases released by these fires.

Now all modern fire-making places scrub the sulfur from the exhaust. This is now the main source of our sulfur! We burn a hell of lot of fossil fuels and most of them contain significant sulfur and so we have a new, steady supply. What we used to think was a waste stream is now a resource.

That’s the lesson for me. There is no such thing as waste. We live in a material society that creates a lot a stuff. And we throw a lot of that stuff away. The steel, aluminum, and glass industries do a lot of recycling for example, so there’s proof that we can do a better job with our “one-and-done” system. But most things we make we use for a while and then we toss them. Our market economy requires new goods to be continually made and purchased so there is a lot of incentive to dump the old things.

In fact if we don’t keep buying our economy will collapse. Capitalism has to grow. A steady-state is the same thing as a death spiral. So we will continue to burn our great fires and dig up our minerals and build our things so that we can keep selling them and keep buying them. That way we can all see our wealth grow and we can continue to have faith in our economy so that we will borrow and spend and pay back our loans so that we can borrow and spend some more. All those who borrowed money expect to keep earning and all those who loaned money expect to be paid back. And so it goes.

All resources are ultimately finite. We won’t run out any time soon, even with billions of us demanding more everyday. We will however find it harder to get the stuff we need. And it will get more expensive. So we have to do better with what we have. We can’t just suck oil out of the ground and make plastic doohickeys and get rich selling them and then just let them float out in the middle of the Pacific. That plastic is enormously-resource intensive. We can’t allow that energy to be wasted. All things we make must have an end-of-life plan.

The only way we can do that is to re-work this notion of waste. There isn’t anything that is actually waste. Given enough time everything will return to its atomic constituents and get re-shaped by nature into something else. Right now we are counting on nature to take care of our messes for us. But that’s not going to work anymore. We have to see a barrel of oil not as a one-way arrow but as a circle. When we burn oil to make electricity and we recover the sulfur from the fumes that’s thinking like a circle. And that’s just a tiny little thing, imagine what we could do if we really tried.

I once had a nuclear engineer tell me he thought sealing up and burying nuclear waste was a mistake. He viewed the material by-products from the reactors as potential resources and wanted them stored in such a way that we could “get the stuff back when we need it.” I tell you I liked the way that guy thought! Maybe radioactivity makes you squeamish, it does a lot of folks, but if we are going to use it we need that kind of outlook.

God rains fire and brimstone down upon the unfaithful. Throughout the Bible those two things serve a symbol of god’s wrath. Sodom and Gomorrah got the fire and brimstone treatment, for example. These days we harness our fire and brimstone but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back and bite us in the ass. I don’t worry about god’s wrath, I worry we won’t catch on quick enough about this waste stuff. Because we’ll pay just as heavy a price as the S & G crowd did, just not as quickly. Their trip to oblivion was instantaneous, ours will be slow enough that we might not notice.

5 thoughts on “Fire and Brimstone

  1. However, one waste products of gold mining is cyanide how can we recycle that without killing people? Also, many other wastes are being recycled and called fertilizer instead of toxic waste leading to more toxins in the environment, so not all things are useful in recycling. I was at DisneyWorld the other day and they are doing some creative things with produce using vertical growing on some resulting in increased yields with less use of land plus hydroponic stuff on steroids producing tons of edible crops on small plots. Recycling can be good but I’m not for recycling toxic wastes as fertilizers. Nice article though.


  2. I think vertical farming will become a reality. Just seems like we’ll have to exploit a lot more possibilities for growing food as the population grows.

    LIke lead, the best way to deal with cyanide is not to use it. I suspect they will find other chemicals to extract gold without having to use cyanide. But if they do use it, they should have recover it. The raw material can be made very stable, or converted to forms that could be biodegraded without the toxicity. (It just costs time, effort, and money, like everything else.)


  3. By the way HCN is the formula for hydrogen cyanide, and also the abbreviation of my tag line: High Country Noir, I love triplets–my baseball blog is RMC (Raising Matt Cain) and my beer-making operation is called FSB (French Street Brewery). I’ve been planning to do an HCN post (about hydrogen cyanide) but have yet to put it together! Funny how you mentioned it, Steve.


  4. Your first comment clarifies your post. I was going to comment similarly. To add, the burning of coal creates sulfur dioxide, particularly eastern coal. It is scrubbed from the exhaust and is a source of elemental sulfur. Natural gas has very little sulfur, the primary pollutants of concern are oxides of nitrogen (and of course, CO2 like all fossil fuels). Coal is also a source of an assortment of toxic air contaminants such as mercury. The estimates for 2017 are that coal generates 30% of the power in the electric utility industry, natural gas a bit more than that, petroleum products about 0.5% and other fossil fuels less than 0.5%. Nuclear is at 20% and renewables, including hydropower, a little north of 17%.


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