Air Quality — 28 June 2014

The graphic below shows the number of kilograms of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emitted as a byproduct of each metric ton (1,000 kg) of copper extracted at selected copper smelters around the world.  The data in the 3rd column is the SO2% capture rate.

Copper is mined in Chile as copper sulfate.  To produce pure copper from copper sulfate it is necessary to separate the copper from the sulfur.  This is done in a copper smelter where the rocks are ground up and then melted as we explain here.

SO2 is produced as a byproduct of copper production.  SO2 is a pollutant that causes respiratory problems if people are exposed to too much of that.

SO2 can be converted to sulfuric acid and sold for other industrial uses.  The amount of SO2 that is not converted is emitted into the air as pollution.  The capture rate shown below is the amount of SO2 that is not released into the atmosphere but is converted to sulfuric acid.  To reduce SO2 pollution it is necessary to install electrostatic and other types of filters or replace old plants, which are more difficult to operate cleanly, with newer designs.

As you can see, Chilean copper smelters are the the bottom of the list with regards to SO2 emissions, meaning they are the dirtiest in the world.  The Japanese plants are at the top, in part due to government programs to boost the domestic production of sulfuric acid there.

AES Gener (power plant) and Codelco (copper smelter) maintain an air quality monitoring station for the Las Ventanas, Chile region here. This is part of their effort to show that they are complying with the emission standards that are current in Chile.  (We will explain those emission standards in another post and how they compare to other countries).  The monitoring network also was set up as a means to reassure a nervous public as there have been several accidents where SO2 gas was released into the air causing many people to become sick for a time.

The data on the international plants is from USGS data from 2002.  The Chilean data comes from Chilean sources dated 2010.


copper smelter so2 emissions

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