The oilman who stopped “fuelling with money”
In the second half of the 19th century, Azerbaijan became the center of the world’s hydrocarbon production. However, the mass development of “black gold” deposits threatened with frightening consequences. After direct distillation of Baku oil, the yield of the main commercial product, kerosene, was a little more than 30%, and the rest was called “oil waste.” They were simply poured into the sea or burned...
In addition to the fact that it was fraught with a serious environmental problem, this approach was detrimental to the country’s economy. Dmitri Mendeleyev said that it was a state crime “to burn oil!.. You can fuel with money as well.” However, entrepreneurs did not know how to use the wastes.
At the same time, after the abolition of serfdom and large-scale socio-economic reforms, Russia, following Europe, began its second industrial revolution, characterized by accelerated development of production capacity and technology. Already in the 1870s, 754 of 1229 Russian factories (61.7%) used steam engines.
With the need to maintain more and more complex equipment, the demand for lubricants began to grow rapidly. Since there were no domestic suppliers in the mid-1860s, lubricants were imported to the Russian market from the USA, Germany, Belgium, and Holland. The cost of oils was exorbitantly high and their quality caused a lot of complaints.
Since the 17th-century, animal, vegetable, and mineral oils were used in friction units of different techniques and mechanisms to decrease the wear. However, the more complicated the machines, devices, and mechanisms became, the less effective those were.
This situation has launched a process of active scientific search. The revolution in the “oil issue” was made by Viktor Ragozin, a technology engineer, successful businessman, and inventor, who during his business visit to Baku in the early 1870s turned his attention to the destruction of “oil scraps”.
A graduate of the physics and mathematics faculty of Moscow University (1853), he already had quite an impressive biography by that time. As a young man, he was a member of the secret revolutionary society “Land and Freedom”, took part in the political struggle, and even wound up to the Peter and Paul Fortress. After a brief imprisonment, the young man remained under police surveillance for several years, which forced him to completely reconsider his plans for life and abandon his opposition activities forever. Ragozin took an ordinary position in the Druzhina steamship company, which transported goods along the Volga, and in 1864 became its director.
Here his talent as a researcher and organizer unfolded. He managed the construction of barges, arranged fuel warehouses, and formed cargo routes. Victor Ragozin also had been feverishly active in the public life of Nizhny Novgorod: he participated in the creation of forestry legislation, founded the Merchant’s Bank, and for insurance of cargoes and ships on the way he founded the insurance society “Volga”, which in time turned into one of the largest in Russia.
One of the activities of the Druzhina was the transportation of Caspian oil in barrels. The costly and inconvenient method required modernization. Ragozin designed one of the first wooden ships with an inner deck to transport oil in bulk. In 1874, the inventor launched it on the Volga. He founded the Association for the construction of liquid schooners for the Caspian Sea and supervised the construction of the first Russian sailing oil tankers. This is how the main topic of his activity, to which he devoted 30 years, came into Victor Ragozin’s life: the oil.
Having visited Baku and evaluated commercial prospects of oil refining, in 1873, Ragozin began to conduct the first experiments on the decomposition of oil residues, and he organized a laboratory directly in his private apartment in Nizhny Novgorod.
The excise tax on kerosene, which existed at that time, did not allow to develop and implement the new technology. This required serious investment, which the entrepreneur did not possess. Therefore, in the spring of 1874, he wrote a letter to the Minister of Finance of Russia Mikhail Reitern, in which he substantiated the need for research on obtaining lubricating oils in the factory conditions using a new type of equipment. Emperor Alexander II became interested in the matter and on November 6, 1874, “The Imperial order on the production of experiments at the newly organized photogenic plants” was issued:
“According to the report of the Minister of Finance of Nizhny Novgorod merchant Ragozin’s petition for permission to set up a temporary photogenic plant, which would have no distillation goblet at all but instead would have special cells in which the oil would decompose under the effect of heat." In 1877, Victor Ragozin already had a petition from the Minister of Finance to test a new method of producing kerosene and especially lubricating oil from oil.
Already in 1877, Viktor Ragozin built in Balakhna near Nizhny Novgorod the first experimental oil refinery, where he launched the process of complete refining of oil, obtaining from it, in addition to kerosene, several types of lubricating oils of excellent quality. He called them oleonaphthas. Later, this name entered all domestic and foreign technical dictionaries and textbooks.
Fuel oil was heated to 300°C, superheated water steam was passed through it, which entrained oil fractions into a cooling unit, where they were separated from the water. This was followed by an acid-alkali treatment of the distillate. The technology proved so effective that mass production of oils was launched in a very short time
Ragozin’s intention was not just to provide domestic industrialists; he wanted to enter the world market and gain recognition from the West. At the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878 and 1879 and the Belgian, Riga, and Borisoglebsk exhibitions in 1880, the products of Victor Ragozin's plants were awarded gold medals. To verify their quality, a special examination was conducted in France, which confirmed its unconditional superiority over its American counterparts. The Roman Academy of Industry and Trade and the European Academy of Social Sciences also agreed with these results. As a result, the cost of “Ragozin” oils increased 3-4 times, while the American ones dropped significantly.
In 1880, the entrepreneur obtained the right to designate all his products with the Russian state coat of arms, which was the highest mark for the oil products produced by his plants. Abroad they began to be called simply: “Russian.”
A strategic and practically impossible task by the standards of that time to promote Russian oil products in foreign markets was successfully accomplished.
“The Russian factory worker inspired so little confidence that in 1876, having lived abroad for six months, I managed to convince only two small factories to introduce Russian oil. Four years later the situation was unrecognizable,” recalled Viktor Ragozin.
The factory near Nizhny Novgorod began to receive a huge number of orders, including state orders. And here’s an example: immediately after winning the Paris exhibition, from May to December, oil lubricants worth 770 thousand francs were exported to France. Moreover, in 1880, the French Maritime Ministry recommended that technical oils be used exclusively of Russian manufacture on its ships, and soon the entire navy of the Fifth Republic switched to the use of “oleonaphts.”
“Thanks to the exemplary persistence of Victor Ragozin,” wrote Dmitri Mendeleyev, “German and all kinds of foreign intermediaries of ours failed to seize this business into their own hands. Here the Russian manufacturer was able, perhaps for the first time, to get into direct contact with Western consumers on such a large scale. The example and initiative of V.I. Ragozin will remain forever in the memory of the Russians, just as the name of Vasily Kokorev will be remembered as the founder of the oil business in Baku.”
In 1879, in the village of Konstantinovo near Yaroslavl, the researcher built a second plant with a capacity of 800 thousand stones of oil per year. Remarkably, but the enterprise is still in operation today. Currently, it processes more than 300 thousand tons of oil per year and produces about 50 types of products: petroleum fuels, white, motor, transmission, power and industrial oils, plastic greases, oil lubricants and oil additives, plastisols, metal and combined containers. In 2014 Yaroslavl Mendeleyev Experimental Oil and Lubricants Plant was recognized as the best industrial enterprise in Yaroslavl Oblast.
The production site got such a name for a good reason. Many Russian chemists worked here. Advanced laboratory facilities and state-of-the-art equipment allowed the author of the periodic table to test the apparatus (cube) for continuous distillation of oil and for the first time to introduce the method of its thermal treatment. At the Konstantinovsky plant, the inventor Vasily Kalashnikov’s original installations were tested: a steam superheater bringing the temperature to 400°C and a blower for mixing of oils with air jets during their treatment with sulfuric acid. Russian chemical engineer Alexander Letnyi introduced at the enterprise an innovative method of obtaining aromatic hydrocarbons (benzene, toluene, xylene, anthracene) by deep decomposition of oil.
In 1878-1880, Ragozin’s oil lubricating oils began to be used on the Russian railway transport, thanks to which coal consumption was reduced by almost 1/3.
Despite his success, Victor Ragozin was dismissed from the management of the factories of the Ragozin and Co Partnership. As the engineer himself recalled, his activities were “a struggle with legal and economic obstacles, with misunderstanding, indifference, and ignorance.” In 1883 he moved to Baku, where he became manager of the Baku branch of the S. M. Shibayev Co. M. Partnership and took an active part in the first seven Congresses of Oil Producers.
As trite as it may sound, Ragozin was ahead of his time. He was an ardent supporter of the development of Russian oil product exports; in particular, he believed that it was necessary to introduce a ban on the export of raw materials and semi-finished products from the country.
Although many of Ragozin’s ideas were embodied only decades later, his activity convinced many of his contemporaries of the commercial success of lubricating oils production.
In 1879, in the Russian Empire, there were 19 oil refineries, processing fuel oil into oils by the technology of the Konstantinovsky plant. the Nobel brothers partnership joined the race for leadership in oil production. Already in 1912, the Konstantinovsky plant joined the structure of their company. During World War I, the Nobel partnership became the main supplier of lubricants for the Russian army.
Victor Ragozin died on August 9, 1901, in the village of Ozerki near St. Petersburg.
Today, in Russia there are about 30 oil refineries of fuel, fuel-oil, and fuel-oil-chemical profile with the refining depth reaching 84%. This is achieved through active research and scientific and production work. In particular, the widely recognized flagship in this area is St. Petersburg Mining University.
“Scientists research the field of modernization of hydrocatalytic and thermal processes in oil refining and petrochemicals, development of new petroleum products, including environmentally friendly motor fuels and special purpose petroleum products. Thus, for the first time, we developed and introduced an all-season axle oil for lubrication of motor-axle bearings of locomotives of railroad rolling stock. Different grades of marine fuels we created are used on ships of the Baltic and Black seas for high-, medium- and low-speed diesel engines. Diesel fuels with additives and bio-additives with improved ecological properties are tested. In addition, scientists of the faculty take part in the development of needle coke production technology at Gazpromneft-Omsk Refinery JSC and new coking additives at the newly built delayed coking unit at KINEF LLC,” said Pavel Petrov, Dean of the Mineral Resources Processing Department of the university.
Here works are conducted on the improvement of production technology and application of preventive agents against freezing and dust suppression for the mining and transport industry of Russia, including the development of “green” production technology of dust suppressants from plant polymers, as well as utilization of polymer waste. Research on the development of technology for the production of high-quality bitumen and polymer-bitumen materials with oil refineries, asphalt-concrete, and other industrial enterprises is actively carried out.