The Great Sulphur Pyramids of Alberta


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I was going to make a rotten eggs joke, but, wow, that really gets the scale of this operation across.


I want to see to see it completed. Is it pure sulfur? I got a lump of it somewhere…

It used to be used to make gun powder (black powder) but the smokeless powder no longer uses it.


Now that Stephen Harper is no longer Pharoah, it may never be completed.


There’s a wharf across from my office that is used for exporting sulphur. There’s a bright yellow stockpile by the water. I knew it was an oil-sands by-product but never knew they created so much extra. It must be quite heavy, or somehow glued/bound together, as dust from the stockpile doesn’t seem to be an issue at all. I’m guessing rain that falls on it is somehow captured and treated (or at least tested) before discharge. Raw sulphur isn’t soluble in water, so it’s likely not a big issue.


In your face, Egypt!


The University of Alberta has a large pile on campus, too:

Or it’s the gym. I dunno, I don’t do sports.


It would be interesting to know what the break-even oil price is for the pyramid to remain at constant size.

Sulfur isn’t terribly valuable; but it’s not worthless, so I’d assume that if the tar sands production becomes uneconomic they’ll slowly nibble away at the pyramid whenever the price is high enough to cover shipping; while so long as tar sands production is proceeding apace they clearly run quite a surplus.


2 main and common byproducts of oil refining is sulfur and coke (no, not the drink or the drug). The coke can be useful if it’s high grade but if it’s low grade it’s not as valuable and is also high in nasty byproducts (it can have some low level radioactive compounds and high levels of sulfur).

I grew up somewhat near an oil refinery and looking at the heaping piles of sulfur and coke was a common site. Both byproducts can be exported for industrial purposes but there’s so much of it created.

I am not as knowledgeable about the coke, but i know the sulfur can wash out and make it to the surrounding area. It is not exactly a huge hazard as it’s fairly stable in it’s raw form, but i can’t imagine it’s healthy either. I used to find random chunks of sulfur on a nearby bay when i went for hikes as a kid.


It looks like it was made in mincecraft…


Just as well because it had to be removed from fuel to prevent acid rain and solar dimming. We wouldn’t want killing people to be bad for the environment.


they will be able to hold a lot of grain in that when its finished.


“Papa, if the pharaohs are buried in the pyramids in Egypt, what did they bury in these?”
“Your future, son. Now be a good boy and fry me up a couple of eggs on the sidewalk.”


Minimising the surface area and waterproofing it should reduce leaching. Sulfur isn’t ideal but it is used a lot in agriculture because it’s safer than many of the alternatives. For one thing, it is far better as lumps at ground level that as its dioxide in the atmosphere. I used to have to drive across Germany when acid rain was at its worst, km after km of dead trees. It was a pretty loud wake-up call and one of the reasons the Greens have been so strong in Germany. A lot of that was done by Communist-era burning of high sulfur lignite in the East.


Maybe that is how original pyramids were made.


They look more like ziggurats to me. Also has anyone else read The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron? Spoiler alert: sulfur plays an important plot point.


As an anti-fungal agent?


Sulfur and its compounds are very important in industry.

From the Wikipedia article:

“Approximately 85% (1989) is converted to sulfuric acid (H2SO4)…with 32.5 million tonnes in 2010, the United States produces more sulfuric acid every year than any other inorganic industrial chemical.”

What is interesting is that the demand may increase because of its use in making fertilizers.

“The botanical requirement for sulfur equals or exceeds the requirement for phosphorus. It is an essential nutrient for plant growth, root nodule formation of legumes, and immunity and defense systems. Sulfur deficiency has become widespread in many countries in Europe. Because atmospheric inputs of sulfur continue to decrease, the deficit in the sulfur input/output is likely to increase unless sulfur fertilizers are used.”

Dammit, Alberta! You win again!


Indeed, that’s why I assumed that the pyramid is a storage site, not a dump site; and would be gradually sold off if the oil extraction operations stopped or slowed. It’s a huge volume commodity; but it’s heavy and bulky enough that shipping is a serious factor; plus a mountain of it like that would probably depress market prices within shipping range if you tried to get rid of it all at once.

With tar sand extraction up and running, they produce more sulfur than they can sell, hence the pyramid; but they can sell a nonzero amount of sulfur, so if their oil were priced out of the market they’d presumably start running a sulfur deficit until the pyramid was gone. What I can’t find any info on is how fast they are able to sell the stuff; and what the elasticity of their oil production looks like as a function of price(and thus, indirectly, how their sulfur production varies by oil price)…


Home province of Steven Harper
Giant piles of brimstone.

Seems normal to me.