In the late 19th century, Russia mined 40 times more platinum than the rest of the world combined. And yet, despite the skyrocketing demand, over 80% of that was exported to Europe at a meagre cost. What did a mining engineer do to stem the flow of huge losses?
Today, platinum-containing products are used in aviation, radio engineering, jewellery, medicine, electrochemistry, and many other industries. However, there was a time when the metal was banned from being imported into Europe and publicly drowned. It was particularly the case in Spain in 1735 when the conquistadors brought it from colonial Colombia. The decision of the Madrid authorities was explained by the fact that platinum was well alloyed with gold, and fraudsters actively used it to make counterfeit coins and precious objects.
In Russia, the mining of platinum began a century later. However, it is called "from the ground up". The reserves proved to be so impressive that we quickly took the lead in the world. In 1828 alone, more was extracted from the country's bowels than in the previous 100 years in the whole of South America - 1.5 tonnes.
While mining operations performed brilliantly, difficulties were processing the raw materials. Research by scientists to refine schlich platinum was in its early stages - there was still a long way to go before the industrial scale. Foreigners owned the technologies of high-purity precious metals separation from impurities (at that time, three refineries were operating in the world), but they did not hurry to share them. As a result, almost all the crude platinum was exported at throwaway prices. Russia had a 95% share of the "white gold" mining market—leaving only 5% to Colombia—whilst unable to profit from the metal.
With the development of industry and the need for precious metal products, establishing a refinery became a pressing issue. Less than 18% of the mined resource was used domestically - we were sending surrogate minerals abroad and then buying back the pure product! In looking for someone to design the plant, lead the construction and become its director, the government made a quick decision, choosing the chemist Nikolai Baraboshkin.
He was born in a peasant family on October 24th 1880, in St. Petersburg. While studying at Syzran and then Samara schools, the boy became interested in natural sciences. In 1899 he entered the most prestigious technical institute - St. Petersburg Mining Institute. As well as studying, the young man was almost immediately involved in the scientific research work of the institute. From 1902 to 1913, he worked simultaneously in the chemical laboratory of the academician Ivan Schroeder, in the petrographic laboratory of Vasily Nikitin and the physical chemistry laboratory of Nikolai Kurnakov. In addition, he was a freelance assistant in Nikolai Aseev's metallurgical laboratory.
They were all luminaries in mining education, ready to share their experience with an ambitious student. And soon enough, it bore fruit. For example, in 1910, Baraboshkin patented his solution for recovering gold from refractory gold-antimony ores in Germany.
Due to early marriage, the young man was experiencing financial difficulties, so he was forced to look for extra income opportunities. He took part in geological expeditions to gold and platinum deposits in the Far East and the Urals. There, his talent as an organiser began to show itself: in 1907, Nikolai Nikolaevich set up a laboratory for the evaluation of platinum-bearing rocks at the Avrorinsky mine of the Nizhni Tagil Mining District; in 1908-1910, he built a testing laboratory at the Blagodatny mines and the copper and lead plant; in 1912, he designed and built a processing plant for chrome iron ore at the Gologorsky mine of the Perm Province.
It should not surprise that he did not graduate until 1914 at 34. However, unlike many of his classmates, he graduated as an aspiring young engineer and accomplished specialist with a wealth of experience and practical knowledge.
After leaving the university as an assistant to the metallurgy department of non-ferrous and precious metals, he began to refine platinum from impurities developing various refining methods. In addition, Baraboshkin continued to improve methods of analysing multiple raw materials for the content of noble metals.
However, in early 1915 Baraboshkin managed to unravel a secret so jealously guarded by European manufacturers. Nikolay Nikolaevich drew up the longest chain of chemical operations (one hundred and twenty process stages!). He obtained a metal of a reference level of chemical purity from schlich platinum. Although it was only a laboratory result, it could be used as the basis for industrial refining due to its clearly defined scientific procedure.
The government reacted instantly to the success. A few months later, the mining engineer was asked to manage the construction of the refinery and its subsequent operation. The opportunity to apply his newly-discovered method to production was an incredible stroke of luck for the scientist. But he had to start from scratch due to a lack of scientific literature, qualified personnel, equipment and reagents.
The enterprise was put into operation in 1916. Today it is called Yekaterinburg Non-Ferrous Metal Processing Plant. The establishment of the plant gave rise to a whole industry of precious metals manufacturing. For decades it was a research and development site. Taking into account the interruption caused by the Civil War, the methods of producing pure platinum (1916), palladium (1922), iridium (1923), radium (1925), osmium (1927), platinum-extra (1928) and ruthenium (1930) were developed here.
Within nine years of its establishment, the factory refined at least 8 tonnes of platinum, 25 tonnes of gold and 33 tonnes of silver annually. It allowed the country to stop exporting raw materials "for a penny" and altogether refuse noble and non-ferrous metals imports. The enterprise became a source of major economic power: Russia, a significant player on the world platinum market, pushed the British and the French aside. We no longer needed foreign help to refine "white gold". Although the state remained a monopolist for a short time (the Europeans understood the risk of becoming dependent on Russian platinum and found the largest reserves in Africa), the Soviet Union could use the noble metal for its knowledge-intensive industries. Thus, platinum helped win the Great Patriotic War, the "war of motors", as no engine could do without it and its alloys.
Against the background of the development of the mining and processing industries, the need to expand mining higher education became apparent. The authorities built an engineering institute near mineral deposits in the Urals. Petr Petrovich von Weimarn, professor of the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, became the founder and first rector of the Ural Mining Institute. On his arrival in Ekaterinburg, he did not stay at a hotel but at Nikolai Baraboshkin's. Even the institute's office was located on the refinery premises, which were under construction at the time. There is a legend: the beloved professor was sheltered by his former student. Weimarn invited an outstanding metallurgist with unique practical experience to teach at the institute. And the head of the plant, without leaving his post, became the founder and dean of the metallurgical faculty of the Ural Mining Institute. Then he set up departments of non-ferrous metals metallurgy, electrometallurgy, enrichment of non-ferrous metal ores, theory of metallurgical processes at the Ural Industrial Institute (today UPI - ed.). Later on, Nikolay Nikolaevich became the head of the Research Institute of Non-ferrous Metals.
Paying great attention to the organisation of higher technical education, Baraboshkin continued to solve strategically important production tasks. He developed technologies for pyrometallurgy of nickel and processing of copper electrolyte sludge. In 1933, the first Soviet nickel was produced at the Ufaleisky nickel plant, built under Baraboshkin's supervision. He also became a scientific adviser to the first Soviet arsenic plant in Karabash in the Chelyabinsk region.
Nikolay Nikolayevich died in 1935 under mysterious circumstances and was consigned to oblivion for a long time. Among the possible reasons for this restraint, biographers have cited the scientist's involvement in closed topics, his non-party nature and uncompromising nature in discussions "with the powers that be". Today his name is increasingly heard in Russian mining history, and books are written, and films are made about him.