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Sulfuric Acid – Everything you need to know


Sulfuric Acid, also known as Oil of Vitriol to medieval European alchemists, is a colourless, greasy, dense and also corrosive liquid, that has the chemical formula of H₂SO₄. It is arguably one of the most important chemicals, that can be used for important things that benefit society to many extents. It can be prepared industrially, with the reaction of water and sulfur trioxide, which can be made by reacting sulfur dioxide and oxygen by using either a chamber process or a contact process. It is produced on a larger scale due to it’s a beneficial contribution to the production of fertilizers, dyes, pigments, drugs, detergents, explosives as well as inorganic salts. It is always soluble in water in all concentrations.

How have scientists managed, to a feasible extent, managed to produce Sulfuric Acid on a larger scale safely without causing excess environmental damage? Furthermore, how what have the social, economic and political impacts been regarding the production of Sulfuric Acid?

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In this essay, I will talk about how Sulfuric Acid is produced on a large scale, and how it’s feasible production grant it such success in the industry. Furthermore, I will also explore the effects and impacts the production of Sulfuric Acid has on an Economic, political, social and ethical basis.

How is Sulfuric Acid made?

In my introduction, I wrote that sulfuric acid can be produced either through the chamber process or the contact process. Here, I will be explaining and describing how sulfuric acid can be produced using the contact process. The raw materials needed in order to produce sulfuric acid are air, water and sulfur. The contact process, that is needed in order to produce the liquid, is a process that involves a reversible reaction i.e. a chemical reaction that can go both ways.

1 ) As a first step in the production of sulfuric acid, sulfur is burned, in order to produce the chemical compound Sulfur Dioxide.

(l) means liquid and (g) means gas

This not yet is a reversible reaction. During this process, be sure not to release any sulfur dioxide, as this can contribute to acid rain, the rain that contains dissolved acidic gases such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

2) As a second step in the production of Sulfuric Acid, more oxygen has to be reacted with Sulfur Dioxide in order to create sulfur trioxide.

ΔH=−196 kJ/mol

This reaction is reversible, meaning it can go both ways. The requirements that are needed in order to create sulfur trioxide are :

Vanadium Oxide (V2O5). This is a catalyst. Sulfur trioxide can only be produced when sulfur dioxide is oxidized with the presence of Vanadium Oxide.
The temperature at which the reaction takes place must be around 450°C.
The pressure should be controlled at a sustainable level of 2 atmospheres.

3) For the final step in the production of sulfuric acid, sulfur trioxide has to react with water in order to create the final liquid sulfuric acid.

(aq) means aqueous or dissolved in water.

Water + sulfur trioxide → sulfuric acid

This, just like the first reaction in the process of the creation of Sulfuric acid, is not a reversible reaction, meaning that it can not go both ways

What is the contact process?

The contact process is one of the more advanced and recently incorporated systems to produce sulfuric acid in high concentrations. It is done by oxidizing the sulfur dioxide in the presence of the catalyst (vanadium) and absorbing the remaining sulfur trioxide in water.

There are five main steps involved in the Manufacture of Sulfuric Acid by the contact press. They are :

  • Production of sulfur dioxide from sulfur S + O₂ → S0₂
  • Purification of Sulfur Dioxide ( to remove dust particles, oxides of iron and arsenic )
  • Catalytic oxidation of sulfur dioxide (S0₂) to sulfur trioxide (S0₃) (2 SO₂ + O₂ → 2 SO₃ + heat) ( → = V₂O₅ at 450°C)
  • Conversion of S03 to oleum (S0₃ + H₂SO₄ → H₂S₂O₇)
  • Dilution of Oleum to Sulfuric Acid (H₂S₂O₇ + H2O → 2 H₂SO₄)

Blower (A)

The first part in the production of sulfuric acid using the contact process is by blowing pure oxygen through the blower. The blower is a small device that brings the pure oxygen to the next section of the contact process.

Sulfur Burners (B)

Section B on the diagram is the second stage of the contact process. B is called the sulfur burner. What the sulfur burner does, is that it burns sulfur in pure and excess oxygen in order to obtain sulfur dioxide gas and oxygen.

S + SO₂ → SO₂ + O₂

Dusting Tower (C)

The tower labelled as C on the diagram represents the dusting tower. The mixture of sulfur dioxide and air obtained contains various impurities, which have to be removed; otherwise, the catalyst (Vanadium) loses its efficiency and the reaction slows down. There are dust particles, pyrite dust and arsenious oxide. The mixture is passed through the dusting tower in which electric charges attract the solid particles, which then are removed, meaning that the mixture is almost free of dust particles.

Scrubbing Tower (D)

Scrubbers are a system that removes excess pollution and/or gases from industrial exhaust streams. In this compartment of the contact process, the excess dust particles that have still clung onto the mixture, get completely eliminated in the scrubbing tower.

Drying Tower (E)

In the Drying tower, labeled E in the diagram above, the gas is dried by a so called spray of highly concentrated sulfuric acid in order to prepare for the next tower in the contact process.

Arsenic Purifier (F)
The gaseous mixture that consists of sulfur dioxide, that has already been freed from all dust particles and dried is now led to the arsenic purifier, where all of the traces of arsenic oxides are removed.

Contact tower or Oxidation chamber (G)
The clean, dried gaseous mixture of sulfur dioxide and air is passed through a tower loosely packed with vanadium pentoxide or platinum. Here, the preheated mixture of Sulfur dioxide and oxygen form sulfur trioxide.

2 S0₂ (g) + O₂ (g) ⇌ 2 SO₃ + 45,000 calories
(3 volumes of (2 volumes of
reactants) products)

A catalyst is also present in this reaction. Vanadium is present and the reaction occurs at a temperature of 450°C

This is the main chemical reaction occurring in the contact process. It is a reversible, exothermic reaction, accompanied by a decrease in volume.

Absorption Tower (H)
The second last station of the contact press is the absorption tower. The absorption of sulfur trioxide takes place here. Sulfur trioxide is not dissolved directly in water as it gives out a lot of heat. Sulfur trioxide is cooled in a heat exchanger and is then absorbed in sulfuric acid to give oleum.

Dilution Tank

Sulfuric acid is soluble in water in all proportions and dilution of oleum and or pyrosulphuric acid is done by the addition of acid to water.

This sulfuric acid having the desired concentration is then finally obtained by this process.

How does the catalyst and temperature increase, affect the amount of yield?

First and foremost, a catalyst hast to be present during the reaction of sulfur trioxide and sulfuric acid, due to the fact that the reaction would be too slow to produce an effective and profitable amount of yield. So the presence of Vanadium (V₂O₅) is crucial. The catalyst is responsible for the reaction to reach a dynamic equilibrium fast enough for the rate to be beneficial. Adding a catalyst, however, only affects the rate or speed of a certain reaction. It cannot change or alter the position of the equilibrium, i.e. adding a catalyst, will not change the amount of reactant or product reduced.

Temperature also plays a key role in the production of sulfuric acid. A low temperature slows down the reaction immensely. There’s no point in having a very low temperature and waiting months for the reaction to reach a dynamic equilibrium. The goal is for the gases to reach the state of equilibrium in a very short time so that they still come in contact with the catalyst in the reactor. This is when a compromise comes into the game. The compromise is like a break-even. You want the cost it takes for you to produce the sulfuric acid to be exactly as much or less than the profit you get by producing it. The compromise is the ideal temperature that you need to use in order to make the rate of reaction fast enough, but at the same time not all too expensive. The compromise of temperature, in this case, is between 400-450°C.

The pressure is also a factor that could theoretically increase the rate of a reaction. However, the pressure can only minimally increase the rate of reaction. The thing is that the rate of reaction can only be significantly increased when the pressure is at a very high standard (atmospheric level). When the pressure reaches those high values, however, the reaction is usually already finished. So the debate begins to evolve. Is it beneficial to pay the money to increase the pressure when it only has such a minor effect ? Economically speaking, the answer would be no. Because even without altering the pressure, the conversion of sulfur trioxide is 99.5%. This means that the pressure if even, can only make a minimal change to the final conversion. And to many people, it just isn’t worth the price. In industries, time is money, and people can not afford mistakes.

Contact Press Cost

Тowadays contact press is a very effective way of producing sulfuric acid. The setup and construction does not cost a lot of money, making it a very cost.efficient process. The mechanism also works perfectly most of the time, so not much has to be spent on frequent maintenance. However, if platinum is used as a catalyst, the cost-efficiency may drop it’s value. This is due to the simple fact that platinum is a very costly catalyst that is not all too effective. Most contact processes use Vanadium, due to the fact that it is just as efficient and costs almost half the price of platinum.

Contact Press Safety

Safety is always a great issue when it comes to the production of anything, especially things where acids or corrosive liquids are involved. Not everyone can ensure safety, but a few factors could be executed in order to minimize the danger. Some of the risks that could happen during the production of sulfuric acid are :

  • Exposure of workers to sulfur dioxides, sulfuric acid fumes, arsenic, selenium and sulfur dust
  • Possibility of sulfur dust explosions (preventable by wetting down while handling)
  • Ordinary machinery hazards in sulfur burner and blower rooms and where belts, pulleys and gears are used to transmit power to pumps
  • Drips and sprays of acid from leaks in pipelines and tanks
  • Acid flowing from broken gage glasses
  • Exposure to fumes and acid when workers are required to work inside tanks, towers and other apparatus
  • Hazards incident to the handling of heavy pieces of equipment when making repairs

These risks can be prevented through some principles, even though in the long run, some of the risks are inevitable. The risk percentage can be minimized by men wearing gas masks whenever they exposed to any concentrated sulfur dioxide and sulfur acid fumes. Respirators and goggles will also ensure protection against the viscous sulfur dust. Close supervision to the pipes are a necessity to observe if there may be a cave-in in near future. Drips and sprays of acid from leaks in pipelines or tanks can be prevented through a good original installation work. Gage glasses should be used in tanks in absolutely necessary. Stout guards should also be observing the construction for any avoidable hazard in the upcoming future.

Benefits of the Contact Process

I would say that the biggest advantage of the contact process is that the conversion of the sulfuric acid is 99.5%. That percentage of conversion is very high, not only as a statistic, but also in comparison to the average conversion of other chemicals produced on a larger scale.

Another benefit is that if you think wisely a sulfuric acid plant or plant where the contact process takes place can be very cost-efficient. Even if you spend quite a bit of money on a good installation, the break-even will surely come after not all too long and the industry would start to make profit. One thing to be sure of, is to use Vanadium as a catalyst. It is very effective and can speed up a reaction greatly so that the dynamic equilibrium is reached in no time. Platinum is a rather unsuitable fit as a catalyst.

An advantage of the contact process is also that it outnumbers the lead chamber process in so many ways. The production of Sulfuric acid through the contact process has become safer, more ergonomic and more efficient since more yield is produced for less money. The main aspect and at the same time drawback of the lead chamber process was that it was very expensive and very time-consuming. The time it took the lead chamber process to produce sulfuric acid, the contact process gets done in about half the time with more yield. The lead chamber process produces approximately 64-72% conversion of sulfuric acid, while the contact process is much faster, more efficient and has a 99.5% conversion.

Drawbacks of the Contact Process

A drawback of the process, just like any other process too, is the danger of something not going to plan. Even though, nowadays technology and systems strives to achieve quite the opposite, the risk is always present and ranks itself on this list as well. A lot of hazards can occur, sometimes even not due to human error. But they occur, and in most cases are inevitable.

Another disadvantage is the maintenance of the sulfuric acid, in which the contact process is made inside. Even though nowaday technology is very reliable and greatly effective, hazards can occur, and everything has it’s price. Of course, like to be expected, chemical explosions have the greatest impact on one’s income. Chemical explosions do not only destroy the storage of sulfur and other excess substances, but it also obliterates most of the highly technological equipment used in the sulfuric acid plant. The pipelines are hard to replace and the tanks are hard to reinstall after explosions. Most importantly, people’s lives can be compromised, which cannot be replaced nor payed for.

The technology is not always 100% reliable and in the worst case can lead to devastating repercussions. After the sulfur dioxide is produced in the contact process, before the production of sulfur trioxide starts, some of the excess gas that escaped from the original solutions can cause damage to the environment and society. Acid rain can be produced through these escaped gases. Acid rain can have a serious impact on plants, aquatic life, wild life and also infrastructure.

History of the Lead Chamber Process

The lead chamber process was the most popular way of producing the most popular chemical produced in the industry, until the contact process stole it’s fame and took all the credit for itself (even though it actually is better). It is called the chamber process, due to the simple fact that the sulfuric acid was produced in lead-lined chambers. Back then, in 1746, when the scientist John Roebuck, it was figured that the lead chamber process was better than it’s previous process to produce sulfuric acid. According to journalists and scientists at the time, the lead chamber process was less expensive and much stronger, due to the production in lead-lined chambers. The previous method was to produce the sulfuric acid in glass containers, which were very fragile and easily breakable. That is why the lead chamber process took over and revolutionised the production process of Sulfuric acid, until the contact process was introduced.

Use of Vanadium?

The use of Vanadium has definitely only positively impacted the production of Sulfuric acid. First and foremost, vanadium is a necessity as it speeds up the reaction of the production of Sulfur dioxide. According to many scientists, the reaction without the presence of a catalyst would be too slow, and the industry would fall into a financial crisis soon later, as no profit would be made. In this paragraph, I am specifically referring to the catalyst Vanadium, as it outnumbers platinum (an alternative catalyst) in very many statistics and is the better option in all circumstances. The main advantages, when the catalyst vanadium is present, include:

  • Vanadium is a catalyst that has the potential to last up to 20 years. A catalyst can not chemically get used up, making them very effective.
  • The catalyst is very immune to poisons that may occur throughout the process of sulfuric acid. This does not apply to platinum.
  • The vanadium has a very low initial investment and only has a 5% replacement rate per annum, meaning that only a very low percentage of the vanadium used is rather unsuccessful.
  • Vanadium is both cheaper and more effective than the other catalysts possible for sulfuric acid production.

The political impact of Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric acid is one of the most produced chemicals produced on a larger scale and industrially worldwide. It has affected the economic, social and environmental conditions of several countries. Therefore, it also had a great impact on politics. This mainly is due to governments of different countries having to pay enough money to invest in the industry in order to keep production levels upright. Great amounts of money have been invested in the industry and constant involvements with the governments take place because the industry wants to increase to benefit the economic scale to certain extents as well. The governmental support continues only up to a certain extent.

The extent is that the production of the acid is safe and nobody is compromised by the production. And this leads us to the slight problem that the production still has it’s errors and hazards occur unexpectedly. When the government realises that the industry has too many unnecessary emissions and the safety is not ideal, it starts to stop supplying. And what is to follow is great amounts of pressure including threats from the environment-safety organisations and health organisation. These thrusts of pressure results in the government having to invest more into the equipment and maintenance of the industry. This, for example, was when the government made the decision that the lead-lined chamber process was to be replaced with the new contact process. Up to this day, this pressure still exists for the industry. But nowadays, most problems have been resolved positively.

Nowadays, most aspects of safety have been resolved. Scientists have newly deciphered a way to recycle excess gases that remained after the production of Sulfuric acid. However, even though the process of recycling works for most of the time, some of the gas still escapes as particles or droplets and end up as toxic emission. This is another key aspect that the government should invest in. Guaranteed safety in gas escape and leakage. “Fortunately from an environmental and waste management standpoint spent sulfuric acid is often reprocessed. Sulfuric acid has been disposed of by being placed in sealed containers, or by being absorbed into vermiculite, dry sand or earth. Sulfuric acid can be diluted or neutralized.”

Most accidents nowadays happen due to transportation malfunctions. Certain principles have to made that apply to all countries that involve the industrial production of Sulfuric Acid. This is because, in a transportation malfunction, if there is a leakage of acid, it could be a toxic emission and people could make interference with it, which results in unfortunate repercussions.

The economic impact of Sulfuric Acid

Due to its significance, sulfuric acid is considered a super indicator of a country’s industrial well-being. Sulfuric Acid production can be mirrored against some of the most significant historical events that can relate to the world economy. According to an article, there was a huge economic growth during the first two world wars and the time to follow, thanks to the increase of sulfuric acid production. The most produced chemical in the entire United States is sulfuric Acid.

Sulfuric acid can be produced through two different processes/methods. The first method is the lead chamber process. However, even though this process is reliable, it has dropped to almost extinction in the past decades. This was probably due to the introduction of the contact process that can produce more yield and is more effective as well as more versatile.

The import rate of Sulfuric acid (a combined mixture of sulfuric acid and sulfur trioxide) is greater than the export in the United States of America. The main use of Sulfuric acid in the United States of America is for the production of fertilizers. It also contributes to the production of hair dyes and other dyes, drugs and medicine and also explosives. All of these are very popular in the unites states, especially explosives as the US has the most advanced military and has endless supplies. It also, in a minor proportion also is included in food additives (food colouring and flavour).

Sulfuric Acid has strongly benefited and impacted the economy, not only of the united states but also in terms of the world. Back ín the 1990s, 40 million tons of Sulfuric Acid were produced per year, so one could decipher that many jobs are associated with Sulfuric acid production, which in the long term, also benefits the economy. Last year’s amounts totalled a whopping amount of 230 million tons of Sulfuric Acid produce.

Environmental impact of Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric Acid can escape to the open environment through several methods. The industrial emissions of the acid, after production, can cause inflated toxicity in the atmosphere. The acid can potentially exist as droplets or particles. These particles and/or droplets can then dissolve into the state of existing as a cloud, fog, sew, snow or rain. This would conclude in a reasonably dilute acid solution. If the acid is present in clouds, or rain etc, they will travel along the wind line, until it eventually precipitates as either dangerous acid rain or acid fog. After precipitation, the excess acid could result in waterways.

We have already discussed that sulfuric acid can be present as particles or droplets in the environment. When precipitated as acid rain, or if the acid form has made contact with the ground, the particles of acid will mix and dissolve in the different waterways. The acid has a moderate acute effect on aquatic life and a moderate chronic effect on aquatic life. The sulfuric acid is under the category of highly corrosive substances and could without doubt, strongly damage the plants and any other species of animals that have interference with the plants, This could be either land animals or aviation animals like bees. Chronic effects on plants have not been identified yet, and therefore cannot be evaluated. Small amounts of the sulfuric acid that escaped and landed in aquatic places can be neutralised, using natural alkalinity. Larger amounts could, for prolonged periods of time, lower the pH.

Health impact of Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric acid, can only literally ‘enter’ the body, through the mouth, when breathing in contaminated air. When high concentrations of Sulfuric acid also comes in contact with skin, serious burns and infections could be the expected repercussions. But how could people become exposed to high concentrations of Sulfuric Acid? Or in other words, enough concentrated in order for it to cause damage to the human body.

Most consumers, or people who have come in contact with Sulfuric acid, have mostly obtained their condition due to them using products that contain the acid. This can vary from different types of cleaning products all the way to car batteries. Furthermore, also industry workers, exposed to high toxicity levels of the substance, also are compromised by the risk of repercussions. The last example, where people could potentially get in contact with certain levels of sulfuric acid, is when people come in contact with contaminated air from sulfur dioxide emissions.

The repercussions that can be experienced when coming into contact with the acids are quite devastating. As stated earlier, it can burn the eyes and skin, and if direct contact is made between the body and the corrosive liquid, a third-degree of blindness may be obtained. Exposure to the acid can also cause irritation in the eyes, throat, neck and also lungs. Higher concentrations can also cause a fluid buildup in the lungs (pulmonary oedema). Industry workers, if exposed to the acid several times can experience permanent lung or tooth damage. Statistics show that in the US, 714 facilities have released a total amount of 15,077,944 Kg into the environment, Of that amount, 8,929,868 kg were released into the air.

Social impact of Sulfuric Acid

Interestingly enough, not very much interest has been shown in the production of sulfuric acid. Many people are eco-friendly supportive and contrast the viewpoint of one that supports the production of sulfuric acid. People are in greater favour of something called green chemistry (GC). Green chemistry, also called sustainable chemistry is a social organisation that wants to enforce a new viewpoint regarding the production of substances. The goal of green chemistry is to strongly minimize the use and /or generation of quite corrosive and hazardous substances. The reason why I am mentioning this is that it can be related to the use and production of sulfuric acid. An example is in the production of concentrated nitric acid. Usually, in the standard process, sulfuric acid is used to produce nitric acid. A completely new process to produce adipic acid (AA), completely eliminates and ignores the need for nitric acid. The new process uses substances that are a lot less hazardous and corrosive than sulfuric acid.

To conclude about the social impact, even though the production of sulfuric acid greatly benefits the economy, people are not really in great favour of the corrosive substance. And the main aspect is not even due to it’s a negative impact on the environment or health, but purely because it is a rather hazardous and corrosive liquid that can compromise different things.

Ethical impact of Sulfuric Acid

According to the statement, ‘Ethical’, something can only be ethical if it is humane and does not have a negative influence on human well being or animal justice. The industry that produces sulfuric acid has to take into account, the different ethical implications. Is what we are doing right? Is it humane? Does it benefit others? Also the environment?

First of all, almost every industry has a risk of pollution and environmental damage, human wellbeing and health and also of course safety. But the advancement that scientists have made is very important if considering all of the different aspects that need to be considered in an industry like this. Even though industries are dealing with substances that are highly toxic and corrosive and equipment worth 1000’s of dollars, nowadays advancements have enabled us to guarantee near impossibility of any life compromising hazards. Scientists have strongly considered if what they are doing is right, and yes, not only for the economy, not only for the politics but also for the people! With all of the advantages that have been created through the production of sulfuric acid, one can only argue for the continuation of the industry.

One thing, however, can we improve on. And that is the most dangerous feature in the production of sulfuric acid. The problem is that it does not only affect the industry, but also other factors that are important to consider. The problem is the transport of Sulfuric acid. Yes, here in developed countries, Sulfuric acid is taken great care of and only transported if really need to. High safety lorries are used for the process and safety not only for the workers but also for civilians is ensured. However, in less economically developed countries, the situation is different. Sulfuric acid is also used in countries that are not all too well off, and the government does not spend enough money on the transportation of these substances. Most injuries, infections and accidents, in general, have been reported from incidents like these. This aspect, in general, should be taken great care of, not only to preserve the sulfuric acid but also to ensure safety around the world and to keep emissions as reduced as possible.


To conclude, I think that the production of sulfuric acid is extremely beneficial, not only economically, but also politically and socially, as well as ethically. I think that the production of sulfur dioxide brings many positive things to this world, especially it’s assistance in the production of fertilizers, explosives, hair dyes and other dyes, drugs and other things. I think that it boosts the economy and strongly benefits the people of this world in many ways. The production does not only let us thrive with different products, but it also considers the ethical factor of enabling employment.

I think that the improvements that the industry should strive for, are first, making sure that a very good installation of the contact system is inbuilt into the sulfuric acid plant. This gives a heads up for the prevention of leakage in the pipelines or in the tanks. I also think that all of the excess gas that remains after the production of sulfuric acid should be recycled or disposed of in every circumstance! A government cannot afford unpopularity due to gas emissions that are harmful and that can cause horrible repercussions such as acid rain and acid fog, which can leave permanent damage for certain individuals.

An extra section has to be left for the sole reason of ensuring that transportation of the sulfuric acid is safe and does not suffer under the potential risk of a malignant repercussion to occur. The government, especially of the less economically developed countries should consider investing in safe and risk-free transport. If, in the worst case of a transport accident, people get injured through the accident, and the sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid escapes, then all the odds are against the industry. The people are injured, the emissions wandering off to cause damage, sióme of the fields contaminated, resulting in a bad harvest. And this, especially in a less economically developed country should be avoided!

For the future of this industry, I only see the green light if all of the problems that I have mentioned above have been resolved completely! If no, the industry will be undergoing the same problems over and over again, until, through statistics of bad harvest and unsafe equipment, the industry will have to be closed. However, if yes, they are resolved, I see a very nice and bright future for the industry, By yes, I mean that the transport accident percentage has at least halved, no more or extremely few emissions are escaped from the final product of sulfuric acid. That no more damage is caused to plants or wildlife! As this is their planet, and that needs to be respected! If all these aspects are resolved, then yes, this industry will rise and increase popularity day by day. It will, just as it currently is, grow in economic value and increase the positive impacts on the economy, politics and definitely ethics! The industry may grant itself a position in the stock market and the company will shoot in the air with great success. However, only if the problems are resolved. Resolved completely.


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