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state_sulphur_smSulphur is a widespread native element, which has been used since ancient times for medicinal and industrial purposes. Elemental sulphur occurs naturally in salt domes, as deposits around volcanoes and within sedimentary beds. Sulphuric acid, the major derivative of sulphur, is the most important inorganic chemical used in commerce, being widely used in the chemical and fertiliser industries. It has been said that sulphuric acid consumption is one of the best indexes of a nation’s industrial development.

Primary production of elemental sulphur is mainly from salt dome cap rock deposits, which contain disseminated sulphur. Sulphur is also produced from pyrite (iron sulphide, FeS2), from soil sand deposits in Canada and recovered as by-product from smelters, industrial plants, and the refining of petroleum, oil and natural gas.

World 2013 production was 69 Mt of sulphur in all forms, of which ~50% is derived as a by-product of natural gas and petroleum production. Dedicated pyrite and native sulphur operations represent only ~30% of total production.

South Australian production

Australian production in 2013 was 900,000 tonne of sulphur  as a by-product from metallurgy and petroleum. There is currently no mine production of elemental sulphur in Australia, but several metal smelters recover sulphuric acid as a by-product. In South Australia, by-product smelter acid is recovered at Port Pirie and ammonium sulphate is recovered at Olympic Dam.

Sulphuric acid is necessary for the production of superphosphate fertiliser from phosphate ore. A world shortage of sulphur in 1951 led to three South Australian fertiliser companies forming Nairne Pyrites Ltd to recover sulphur from pyrite in the Nairne Pyrite Member of the Talisker Calc-siltstone at the Brukunga Mine, 5 km northeast of Nairne in the Mount Lofty Ranges. The township of Brukunga was built to house employees, and the quarry, crushing and treatment plant began operations in 1955. About 300 000 t of ore were mined annually, and pyrite concentrate was railed to the Sulphuric Acid Pty Ltd plant at Birkenhead, a northwestern suburb of Adelaide. The Commonwealth Government underpinned the operation by agreeing to pay a subsidy if the market price of sulphur fell below a certain level, but this was abolished in 1966. By the early 1970s, cheap sulphur was being purchased from natural gas refineries in Canada, and pyrite production at Brukunga ceased in 1972. During the life of the mine 5.5 Mt of ore averaging 11% sulphur were treated for the recovery of 1.3 Mt of concentrates. Over 8 Mt of overburden and waste were removed.

The Wheal Ellen mine situated north of Strathalbyn produced pyrite and gold from 1909 to 1912. About 5000 t of massive pyrite ore, averaging 49% sulphur, were sold for sulphuric acid manufacture. Sulphuric acid was also manufactured from gases generated by the treatment of chalcopyrite at the Wallaroo and Moonta smelters between 1899 and 1923.

The Mutorroo polymetallic Cu-Co-Fe-S vein deposit in the Olary region has a 2010 resource of 13.1 Mt at 20% S, mainly as massive phrrhotite for 2.5 Mtonne of contained element in sulphar.  

Additional Reading

Johns, R.K., 1973. Sulphur, South Australia. South Australia. Department of Mines. Report Book, 73/260.