No. 1, 2012

Alexander Matveichuk ,
Ph.d. (History), Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences


Mining engineer Nikolay Voskoboynikov built Russia’s first refinery 175 years ago

The history of the Russian refining industry goes back to the 18th century. The literature tells us that in 1823, the Dubinin brothers, who were serfs, built a makeshift one-still refining installation in the aul of Akki-Yurt, the home of the Tersk Cossack Host. But Russian historians consider the true forerunner of Russia's oil industry to be the refinery built by Mining Engineer Nikolay Voskoboynikov in 1837 on the Apsheron Peninsula.

The Apsheron pioneer

The oil fields of the Apsheron Peninsula became a part of the Russian Empire after the Russian-Persian war of 1803-1813. At that time, the Apsheron Peninsula boasted 116 black oil wells and one that produced white oil, the total yield amounting to around 150,000 poods (an obsolete Russian unit of weight equal to about 16.38 kilograms) of oil a year. For the next two decades, these oil wells were maintained by various small entrepreneurs and brought the treasury a rather modest income. The new stage in the development of the Apsheron oil fields was primarily associated with the productive activity of talented Russian inventor, Mining Engineer Nikolay Voskoboynikov (1803-1861). After graduating from the Mining Cadet Corps, a specialized learning institution, in 1823, he worked for the next ten years in the Georgian mining expedition and engaged in successful geological research in the Northern Caucasus, Imeretia, Mingrelia, and Svanetia.

On January 1, 1834, according to a decree of Russian Emperor Nicholas I, the Mining Department was turned into a militarized organization called the Mining Engineer Corps. The institution was headed by Minister of Finance Count Egor Kankrin, who was the initiator and organizer of a successful monetary reform. From that day on, the title "mining engineer" appeared in Russia. A chief of staff was also appointed, who was in charge of the inspectorate. Major General Konstantin Chevykin was the first chief of staff of the Mining Engineer Corps.

On January 1, 1834, Major of the Mining Engineer Corps Voskoboynikov was appointed director of the Baku and Shirvan oil and salt fields. His duties were set forth in the instructions of the Mining Department: "Ensuring that the oil wells are kept in good order and supervising the dredging of oil, the delivery of Baku oil to Baku and Shirvan oil to the near banks of the River Kura, and the sale of oil at places established for this." From that day on, Mining Engineer Voskoboynikov had every opportunity to put his innovative ideas concerning the development and improvement of the oil business into practice.

He concentrated primarily on how best to build oil wells. At that time, the procedure called for first digging a pit in the shape of an inverse cone right down to the oil bed. At least seven steps with an average depth of 4.5 sazhens (an obsolete Russian unit of length equal to about 9.5 m) were cut down the sides of the pit. The walls of deep wells were reinforced from the bottom to the top with a wooden frame and boards. Holes were made in the frame at the bottom of the well for the oil to flow through.

In an attempt to raise operational efficiency, Major Voskoboynikov suggested that, instead of digging a large-bore pit, shafts should be constructed on the surface for providing access to the oil bed. The shaft was to be divided in half by a partition and a funnel-shaped raised platform made of boards rigged up over the mouth of the mine on one side to increase air circulation. This proposal made it possible to significantly decrease the amount of digging when building oil wells.

Clogging was a major problem in oil well operation. In order to unclog the wells, a worker had to be lowered down on a rope where he manually collected the obstructing sludge in a bucket. As a rule, the worker could only spend a very short time down in the well due to the lack of air.

In 1835, in order to simplify cleaning and repair work, Mining Engineer Voskoboynikov suggested building a canvas ventilator for supplying fresh air to the oil well. Later, he designed an improved device for individual use - "respiratory equipment consisting of an artificial nose with a flexible tube attached to it." With the aid of this equipment, the narrow and winding Ali-Bek well, which had never been cleaned before, was successfully unclogged.

Storing, receiving, and dispatching oil was an acute problem at the fields. When stored in earthen cellars and open oil pits, large amounts of oil were lost due to evaporation, leakage through various cracks in the walls of the cellars and pits, and spillage from buckets when transported by hand.

Nikolay Voskoboynikov's innovations proved extremely productive, since in the first two years when he managed the fields (1834-1835), oil production increased to 352,700 poods (compared to 346,100 poods in 1833).

In 1836-1837, Nikolay Voskoboynikov restructured the entire system for storing and dispatching oil to Baku and Balakhani according to his own design. Five Balakhani oil cellars holding a total volume of more than 122,000 poods were connected to each other by means of stone chutes. A building was constructed on one side for receiving the oil dredged from the wells. Four stone reservoirs capable of holding 0.4 tons of oil each were built in it, from which the oil was dispatched along a chute to the sedimentation reservoir. The settled oil was poured into the chute, along which the oil ran on its own into a storage cellar or into a pit for dispatch. Stone reservoirs equipped with copper stills with three or four apertures were set up along the length of the chute opposite the cellars. When the copper stills were turned, the oil ran through the apertures along the branches of the chute and into the cellar or the dispatch pits. The stone chute near the oil dispatch area ended in a copper tube along which oil flowed into a copper still. The copper still could be turned and was equipped with a gadget for sending the oil along six pipes into wooden barrels of 28 poods each in volume.

In Baku, nine cellars with a total volume of more than 51,000 poods were connected by stone chutes in the same way. On one side of these cellars was a building for receiving the oil delivered from the fields. This building was equipped with copper stills of 28 poods each and reservoirs where the oil settled. After sedimentation, the oil flowed along a stone chute into a storage cellar or a building for wholesale and retail dispatch. Wholesale dispatch was carried out from three reservoirs, and retail from a reservoir equipped with copper faucets and holding 600 poods. Restructuring the oil reception, storage, and dispatch system made it possible to significantly reduce oil losses and organize its accounting and storage. This system also made it possible to increase the amount of oil sold since it could be dispatched in any weather in special buildings. For example, in December 1837, 30,000 poods of oil were sold in Baku, whereas before restructuring only about 10,000 poods a month were sold. Fewer workers were needed and draining and filling work was facilitated.

The first refinery in Russia

In mid-1834, Mining Engineer Voskoboy-nikov began experiments to refine light Surakhani and heavy Balakhani oil and find uses for the lighting oil acquired from them. The distillates obtained, "a transparent and colorless oil extraction" and "a greenish-yellow oil extraction," burned without fumes and "the lamp light was brighter than the light from candles."

At the end of the summer of 1834, Nikolay Voskoboynikov submitted a report to General Grigory Rozen, the chief executive in Georgia, "On the Purification of White Oil at the Baku and Shirvan Fields Using Refining Equipment and Its Preparation for Storage in Iron Barrels." Here he emphasized, "It would be beneficial to purify it by refining it at the site, which will cost the treasury very little, for there are natural flames close to the white oil wells; the benefit from obtaining purified oil lies in the fact that this oil can be sold at a high price and in large quantities."

Engineer-Major Voskoboynikov's report of November 14,1834 was approved by the Scientific Committee of the Mining Engineer Corps.

Academician Germain Hess (1802-1850) and specialists from the Manufactory Department evaluated his proposals positively, giving the following recommendations in their conclusion: "1. Suggest that the chemists engage in the refining of both white and black oil and the definition of its properties as components or fractions obtained from it and publish information about such; 2. In order to begin immediate sales, find out whether the oil can be used for making varnishes for cast iron and other iron and for all needs that turpentine is generally used for, as well as for obtaining charcoal that can be used in printing inks, and find out whether black coal differs from the resin produced from earthy brown coal, and finally, whether the carbon deposits produced from the natural oil flames can be collected and used as a dye for leather factories."

On January 24, 1835, Minister of Finance Count Egor Kankrin signed an order "to Mineral Field Director Engineer-Major Voskoboynikov," in which he instructed that "he notify the government expedition about the preparation at the Baku mineral fields of up to 1,000 poods of purified oil for dispatch through Astrakhan to Russia and about his actions therewith for their rapid execution in order to ensure reliable observance on [the expedition's] part..."

Interesting details about the Balakhani plant project can be found in the report of Georgian Government expedition No.6849 of November 10, 1837, to the Department of Mining and Salt Affairs of the Ministry of Finance. It mentions Engineer Voskoboy-nikov's report No. 322 of June 12, 1837, in which he states the following: "1) After finishing his work to set up the Baku storehouses requiring his permanent presence in Baku, he will leave in a few days for the villages of Balakhani and Surakhani to build refining installations there for obtaining white oil from black; 2) Astrakhan merchant of the second guild Solodovnikov has already sent all the items required for this, i.e. 450 sheets of two-arshin iron weighing 160 poods 29 pounds, lead weighing 4 poods, ammonium chloride weighing 4 poods, and tin weighing 8 poods, to Voskoboynikov; 3) at his request, Baku Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Luzanov, informed him that one mechanic, two smiths, and two stove setters had been appointed to him from Georgian Maneuver Battalion No.8 for setting up the refining equipment, iron barrels, and stoves. Whereby he added that he had designed a new unit for obtaining white oil from black which had the advantage of preventing any change in the quality of the black oil residue. Moreover, he had discovered natural flames near the village of Balakhani that could help in putting several refining installations into operation, thus significantly reducing the expenditures entailed in white refinement; he would submit a description and the blueprints of the refining units he had newly designed when they were put into large-scale operation." Mention of the "natural flames" in this text testifies to Nikolay Voskoboynikov's discovery of a natural gas field and the first use of gas in Russia for industrial purposes.

Detailed information on the technical furbishing and equipping of the Balakhani plant can be found in the blueprints and description of this enterprise kept in the Russian State Historical Archives in St. Petersburg. They show that square refining stills made from sheet iron were set up at the plant's head office. Each still consisted of two parts. The upper part of the still tightly covered the lower section in the form of a cap. Two pipes were attached to the upper part of the still for steam to escape into receiving tanks. First water was poured into the still through a pipe inserted into an aperture in the upper part of the still; then oil was poured onto the surface of the water through the pipe. The stills were held in place by iron bars and inserted into the refining still. The pipes passed through reservoirs of cooling water. The receiving tank of distilled oil was an iron cylinder immersed in a round iron vat full of water. Natural gas was burned for heating the oil under the stills, which was obtained from nearby gas sources and collected in special reservoirs and then sent through pipes to the burners.

In fact, this was the first experiment in the industrial use of natural gas to be carried out in Russia. The gas burner was made from an iron pipe with small apertures at the top. The products of combustion went along a channel to the smoke stack and on their way heated a copper vat of water that was poured into the still to prevent the oil from burning.

The plant produced 83.9% of light distillate and 12.5% of residue from light Surakhani oil, while 3.6% was lost from evaporation. Heavy Balakhani oil produced only 10% of distillate and 85% of residue, while 5% was lost. As it was, the Balakhani refinery was in operation for only a very short time, from November 1837 to August 1838. In these nine months, more than 900 poods of kerosene were produced, which were sent to Astrakhan. Since the oil distillate initially did not undergo any further chemical processing (purification), the petroleum acids in the distillate caused corrosion of the walls of the iron barrels during storage and transportation, which in turn changed the color of the product and significantly decreased its combustive properties. The high production and transportation costs also raised the price of the end product. What is more, Major Voskoboynikov's absence had a detrimental effect on operation of the plant. Due to a false denunciation, he was removed from his post without good reason and held for interrogation for more than a year. The new director of the oil fields appointed in September 1838 by the Mining Department was not interested in developing the refining industry and, on his instructions, at the beginning of 1839 the Balakhani plant was closed down and dismantled.

However, this endeavor was not in vain; several of the engineering solutions Mining Engineer Nikolay Voskoboynikov applied at the pilot plant in 1837-1838 were sought after two decades later and used when building Russian refineries during the second half of the 19th century.

All articles
Oil of Russia, No. 1, 2012
© 1998-2018, "OIL OF RUSSIA".
"OIL OF RUSSIA" magazine welcomes comments and ideas from its readers.
Letters should be sent by regular mail, fax or e-mail.
All right reserved, including right of reproduction in whole or in parts in any form.