On Why Russian Oilmen Fail to Catch Up with Americans despite 150 Years of Effort

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According to the Ministry of Energy of the Russian Federation, the average depth of oil refining in Russia has reached 84%. It would seem to be quite a decent figure, especially when you consider that in the 1990s it did not exceed 65%. That is, more than a third of all black gold supplied to refineries, then turned into the so-called oil residues. For example, fuel oil, which even though it is used as a raw material for thermal power plants or fleet fuel, is a product that is much more dangerous to the environment and much less energy-efficient than the same natural gas.

However, if we look at the figures operated by post-industrial countries, it becomes obvious that the domestic industry has no reason to be optimistic. After all, the depth of processing in the West is close to 100%, because almost all Western plants are equipped with coking units. These units make it possible to produce from fuel oil, tar, and other residues substances that are in demand in metallurgy and sell them at a much more attractive price.

The most interesting thing is that approximately the same situation existed 150 years ago. At that time, oil consumption increased sharply due to the invention and beginning of mass sales of kerosene lamps, which used the products of hydrocarbon distillation instead of animal and vegetable fats burned in oil lamps.

The first to point out the serious lag between Russian and American oil workers was Konon Lysenko, a professor at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute. In his 300-page work “Oil Production Compiled According to the Latest Data”, which was published by the Panteleyev Brothers’ Printing House in 1878, he directly pointed out the inadmissibility of such a development.

Русское химическое общество
© Общественное достояние

In the photo: the founders of the Russian Chemical Society. In the upper row, the third from right is Konon Lisenko, second from right is Dmitry Mendeleyev.

“We began not to process, but to spoil our oil, extracting from it only 33-35% of kerosene, and we do not know what to do with the remaining 60-70% of oil or so-called oil residues,” said the scientist after his business trip to the United States.

He directly pointed out that in the United States “now routinely extracts from 60 to 75% of light oil. And during the distillation, several different products are obtained at once - gasoline, kerosene, tar, and several others. And the light fractions of oil, i.e., the most liquid product across the ocean, are involved in secondary processing. This is necessary both to improve its quality and to “divide it into a larger number of liquids.”

In Russia, the situation was quite different. Most of the factories in Baku were processing “without separation, both light and heavy oils, collecting the entire distillation into one or no more than two products, coming into sale either simply as light oil, or as light oil of different grades.” At some plants, the technology had nothing to do with modern trends: it was practically no different from the medieval ones. Those were described by the Persian scholar Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Razi back in the 10th century.

"The emission of vapors from Baku oil at the Surakhani refinery ... begins at 80 degrees Celsius (in the USA - at 129 - ed.), and when light fractions are emitted, they are either not captured at all or collected together with the subsequent products,” Lysenko wrote.

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Not only he brought innovative American distillers to Russia and introduced them to domestic refineries, but also adapted them to local conditions. The thing is that the composition and properties of Caspian oil differ significantly from the “overseas” oil. It means that to get a quality end product one needs somewhat different technical characteristics of the equipment.

Konon Lisenko not only proved this scientific fact but also modernized western technology of deep processing of oil residues, in particular of fuel oil. And in 1894, together with engineer Stepanov, he created a new generation of efficient kerosene lamps. The result of the scientist’s research activities and implementation of its results in practice became a sharp technological breakthrough of our country, which allowed Russia to catch up with the U.S. by the end of the 19th century in production volumes and quality of fossil fuel processing.

The success of the professor of the Mining Institute was so evident, that five years after his death, in 1908, with the support of Emmanuel Nobel, Lisenko Prize was should be established. It became one of the most prestigious awards in the Russian chemical community and was awarded until the October Revolution. After the Bolsheviks came to power and the civil war began, the country, of course, had no time for science. This led to a qualitative gap between the domestic and U.S. oil industries that once again assumed threatening proportions.

However, in the 1970s, it was once again overcome. At that time the USSR was building ultramodern production facilities in line with the world’s best practices. From 1966 to 1991, the country built seven such plants. And everything would have been just fine if not for one “but”: six of them were located on the territories of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. As a result, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia got 26 morally and physically obsolete plants, eight of which were launched before the Great Patriotic War, five - immediately after it, and nine - in the 1950s. The only exception was the Achinsk refinery, commissioned in 1982.

Омский НПЗ
© gazprom-neft.ru

There was no time to catch up in the nineties, modernization of specialized enterprises and the construction of new ones began only in the middle of the noughties, and even then the rate of fixed asset renewal was not the most intensive. This situation led to the fact that today our country, just as a century and a half ago, lags far behind the U.S. in the depth of oil refining. And one of the most ambitious tasks faced by domestic scientists is to bridge this gap.

St. Petersburg Mining University is also working on it. The same university, whose graduate, teacher, and scholar was Konon I. Lisenko. His successors, in particular, are working on the adaptation of coking technologies to the composition and properties of Russian hydrocarbon grades, which will make it possible to involve the highest possible percentage of oil residues in refining.

Scientific article “Technology of Petroleum Needle Coke Production in Processing of Decantoil with the Use of Polystyrene as a Polymeric Mesogen Additive” https://doi.org/10.1021/acsomega.1c02985

“Our task is not only to implement this technology but also to obtain, thanks to it, new high-margin products. In particular, needle coke of premium quality, which is necessary for the production of anodes and graphitized electrodes. They are used, for example, in lithium-ion batteries and the production of special steel. The cost of needle coke is dozens of times higher than that of conventional coke. But to produce it, all parameters of the equipment must be calculated very carefully and qualitative characteristics of the feedstock determined. Any mistake in calculations may affect the properties of the final product and, consequently, its price. To avoid such a scenario several experiments related to the division of heavy fractions and analysis of the obtained result must be performed,” said Igor Pyagay, Director of Scientific Center for Problems of mineral and Technogenic Resources Processing at Saint Petersburg State Mining University.

It is worth mentioning that Russia does not yet have its needle coke production. The company Gazprom Neft is the closest to start it up, having invested about 60 billion roubles in the profile project. A month ago its specialists connected the core equipment to the power grid at the Omsk Refinery. For now, though, it’s in test mode. If everything goes according to plan, this year Russia will become one of the countries capable of creating costly and science-intensive value-added chains in its territory.