Lehigh University logo
Lehigh University logo
Lehigh University logo

From sulfur to fertilizer

Alongside the world’s major oil and natural gas refineries, says Jonas Baltrusaitis, deposits of sulfur are growing larger and larger each year. One mountain of sulfur in Kazakhstan, he says, has even been photographed from space shuttles orbiting the earth.

Elemental sulfur today occurs chiefly as a by-product of the refining of petroleum and natural gas. By itself, sulfur is nonreactive, but as part of the compound sulfuric acid (H2SO4), it is a critical ingredient in nitrogen-based phosphate fertilizers that enrich the soil and enhance the growth of crops.

Baltrusaitis, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, wants to develop a sustainable method of processing sulfur into sulfuric acid that would “bridge the gap” between the unused mounds of sulfur and the demand for H2SO4 in fertilizers.

The overall goal of his research is to develop and test fertilizers that improve crop yield and help meet global food demands, which he says are projected to rise 40 percent by 2030.

Baltrusaitis recently published an article about his research for the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering. Titled “Liquid and Solid Compound Granulated Diurea Sulfate-Based Fertilizers for Sustainable Sulfur Source,” the article was co-authored with A.M. Sviklas and J. Galeckiene of the Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania.

Baltrusaitis conducts his research at what he calls the “nexus of energy and environment,” where many factors combine to affect the amount of food humans are able to grow on arable land.

“Instead of returning sulfur to the environment, we’re depleting it and storing it,” he says. “I want to take sulfuric acid and scale it up and make fertilizer. My goal is to return sulfur to the environment in its reactive form, as sulfuric acid, so it can be absorbed by plants and increase the efficiency of soil in uptaking nutrients.

“The more efficient we can make this uptake process, the greater the crop yields we will have.”

Read the full story at the Lehigh University News Center.

Related Links