Sulfur in West Texas: Its Geology and Economics
Sulfur, along with salt, coal, and limestone, is one of the basic raw materials of the chemical industry. A nation’s per capita sulfur consumption is a reliable index to its chemical production and a rough index to its standard of living. Sulfur, with its many properties, has literally hundreds of uses; most is used in the manufacture of fertilizers, fibers, papers, pigments, pharmaceuticals, and explosives. Sulfur or brimstone is one of the oldest elements known to man. It was used more than 4,000 years ago in rituals of sacrifice and as a bleaching agent for cotton. The Chinese, around 500 B.C., used sulfur as an ingredient in gunpowder. Arabian alchemists are thought to have discovered sulfuric acid in the 8th Century while trying to convert sulfur to gold. Sulfur became commercially important in 1791 with the development of the Leblanc soda ash process in France (Ambrose, 1965, p. 901). The sulfuric acid industry, which began in the United States near the end of the 18th Century, now uses about 87 percent of the total production. Sulfur plays an increasingly vital role in American industry and agriculture. The 1966 sulfur shortage motivated are evaluation of West Texas geologic and economic potential for sulfur production and a re-examination of its lengthy but spasmodic sulfur history. The occurrence of sulfur in West Texas was first reported in Culberson County in 1854 by William P. Blake, a geologist attached to the War Department (Evans, 1946, p. 5). The first detailed investigation of the surface occurrences in Culberson County was made by G. B. Richardson about 1903. According to Richardson (1905, p. 590), a furnace was constructed in Culberson County about 1900 for extracting sulfur from surface deposits. Two or three carloads of refined sulfur were shipped before the operations were discontinued. E. L. Porch (1917) made an extensive study of the surface sulfur occurrences in Culberson and Reeves counties in 1916. He visited and described eighteen locations in detail and discussed eight others (fig. 4, p. 15). He stated that the surface deposits were being mined once again (1917) and that 40 tons of native sulfur had been shipped to market from the Michigan mine. This project was abandoned soon afterwards, probably due to the abrupt drop in market prices following World War I. In 1900, a deposit of native sulfur was discovered in Pecos County in the Turney well (Adkins, 1927, pp. 102, 103; Richardson, 1904, p. 65; Udden, 1917, pp. 2-3). A lack of the necessary fuel and water for Frasch mining caused abandonment of the project. It is rumored that Frasch mining was tried in this well, but the rumor could not be substantiated. Glen L. Evans, in his study of the Rustler Springs district, described some of the acidic sulfur earth deposits and discussed their use as a source of mineral fertilizer (Evans, 1946). A brief drilling program was conducted by Freeport Sulphur Company in Culberson and Reeves counties during 1948 and 1949 without promising results. In 1967, large scale sulfur exploration began in West Texas after Duval Corporation’s Frasch pilot operation near Fort Stockton proved successful. In August of 1967 Elcor Chemical Corporation and its subsidiary, National Sulphur Company, announced plans to construct a facility in Culberson County to extract sulfur from gypsum. Although gypsum-based sulfur plants have been constructed in foreign areas where sulfur is a high-cost, high-producing commodity, the Elcor facility is the first domestic operation to undertake commercial extraction of sulfur from gypsum. The plant, known as the Rock House Facility, was scheduled to start operation early in 1969 at a production rate of 1,000 tons of sulfur per day. Traditionally, sulfur exploration has come to West Texas only during times of short supply and higher prices. Attractive prices more than any other factor cause exploration. Nothing seems to fire the prospecting zeal of the explorationist more quickly than a price increase. Conversely, nothing will stop exploration any faster than a decline in market prices.
Zimmerman, J. B., and Thomas, E., 1969, Sulfur in West Texas: Its Geology and Economics: The University of Texas at Austin, Bureau of Economic Geology, Geological Circular 6902, 35 p. doi.org/10.23867/gc6902D.
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The University of Texas at Austin, Bureau of Economic Geology