The Empress Catherine II Saint Petersburg Mining University is celebrating its 250th anniversary. Today, Russia's first institution of higher technical education is not only a forge of personnel for companies in the mineral resources sector, but also one of the country's largest scientific clusters. There are 8 major structural subdivisions engaged in both applied and fundamental research in a wide range of areas, from reducing the anthropogenic impact on the environment to producing unique high-margin end-use products.
All in all, there are 42 laboratories on the territory of the university, which are located on a total area of 30 thousand square metres. Their instrumentation and laboratory fund includes more than 3.5 thousand units of equipment. Moreover, 22 of them cost more than twenty million rubles each, and 360 of them are considered to be especially valuable, as they allow to conduct world-class research.
However, investment in infrastructure is an important, but by no means the most important component of success. According to Rector Vladimir Litvinenko, "the level of the current state and prospects of the university's development are determined by the scientific environment". And its formation requires not only financial resources, but also the presence of effective long-term strategies aimed at creating optimal conditions for work and learning.
"Only a properly motivating environment of trust can ensure the integration of scientific, scientific-technical and educational activities of scientists, teachers, students and postgraduates in scientific centres equipped with world-class laboratory equipment. It is this environment that makes it possible to obtain new knowledge as a result of experiments and create conditions for their further implementation in industry. This is a very complex and difficult to realise task, which requires enormous efforts of the whole team, and has a much greater impact on the result than even money. Its solution is extremely important for the succession of generations in science. After all, future scientists and engineers get the opportunity to perform experiments on their own and then see the fruits of their endeavour. The skills of scientific research, data interpretation and writing unique scientific articles on the basis of such conditions allow our graduates to use the acquired experience in the future to multiply their knowledge and improve the quality of their production activities," emphasised Vladimir Litvinenko.
The most important elements of the scientific environment are undoubtedly the rich traditions of the university. Therefore, before finding out what promising research is being conducted at the university today, Forpost compiled a ranking of the best technologies created by scientists or graduates of Gorny for two and a half centuries of its history that have had a significant impact on Russia's innovative development. However, the value of many scientific achievements is so great that we decided to rank them not by importance, but by chronology.
Perhaps, the first, really, major contribution of the university specialists to the solution of state tasks was the creation of the most modern weapon factory in Russia at that time in Izhevsk. Its project was prepared by Andrey Deryabin, a graduate and later director of the Mining Cadet Corps. He also headed the construction itself, or, to be more precise, the radical modernisation of the town-forming ironworks.
Already by the beginning of the war with Napoleon the enterprise managed to supply the Russian army with about 10 thousand soldiers' smoothbore flintlock rifles, which were loaded from the muzzle. It also produced shotguns, rifles, carbines, muskets and pistols. Over the years, the factory became one of the most important links in the defence industry of the USSR and Russia, giving the country the Mosin rifle and the Kalashnikov assault rifle.
The invention of Pavel Obukhov, a graduate of the Mining University, made it possible to reform the country's metallurgical industry and rearm the Russian army, which was extremely important after the Crimean War. Its defeat clearly demonstrated our technical lagging behind the leading Western powers - Great Britain and France, which by that time had already made an industrial revolution.
One of the most acute problems was the poor quality of artillery guns, which was confirmed by the defence of Sevastopol and a number of other battles. The trend of the time was to increase the calibre and with it the firepower of the guns. This increased their role in suppressing the enemy's manpower, but also markedly reduced the durability of the products. It was possible to prolong the service life of barrels by improving the quality of steel, which the British managed to do by the middle of the 19th century.
The method of its smelting, proposed by Pavel Obukhov back in the fifties, allowed Russia to catch up with its geopolitical opponents and even surpass them. Tests of guns created by the new technology ended in 1861 with a complete triumph - no foreign cannon managed to make more than two thousand shots on the range, and Obukhov's gun surpassed this result twice.
In order to put the production of the innovation "on a stream", a factory was built near St. Petersburg, which was later named after a graduate of the Mining University.
In his 300-page study "Oil Production, Compiled according to the Latest Data", Professor Konon Lisenko of the St. Petersburg Mining Institute unequivocally pointed out that Russian oil producers were significantly behind their American counterparts. And he proposed a number of innovations that were then successfully implemented at domestic refineries. These technologies made it possible to significantly increase the percentage of extraction of a useful component from black gold in the production of paraffin.
At that time it was very relevant, as paraffin lamps were becoming more and more popular among the population due to their obvious advantages over oil lamps. The consequence of this was the oil boom and the urgent need to modernise the core industry. Konon Lisenko not only adapted the western technology of advanced refining to the composition and properties of Caspian oil, which had its own peculiarities, but also created a new generation of efficient paraffin lamps in the nineties.
On the photo: founders of the Russian Chemical Society. In the top row, third from the right Konon Lisenko, second from the right Dmitry Mendeleev
On the initiative of the leadership of the St. Petersburg university, the Geological Committee was established in Russia, whose task was to systematically study the subsoil of the Russian Empire and search for mineral deposits. Needless to say, this direction of activity ore explorers were engaged in earlier. Berg-collegium, which systematically organised expeditions to search for new deposits, as you know, appeared under Peter. However, the need to once again catch up with European countries, which had taken the lead by introducing technologies born of the second industrial revolution, forced the authorities to intensify this work.
After his coronation, Alexander III, one of the most underestimated emperors in terms of his contribution to the development of Russia, proclaimed that the mineral and raw materials complex was "the most important part of the economic development of our state" and began to put this postulate into practice. Including in such an important area as replenishing the resource base necessary for the accelerated construction of railways, modern metallurgical and oil refineries.
The main ideologist of the creation of the Geological Committee and its first director was Grigory Helmersen, rector of the St. Petersburg Mining University. The new organisation was also predominantly composed of representatives of the oldest technical university in Russia.
Nikolay Slavyanov, a professor at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, was the first in the world to use arc welding with a metal electrode under a layer of flux, which protected the molten seam from atmospheric pollution. In the presence of the state commission, he welded a crankshaft of a steam engine at one of the Perm plants.
The invention of electric arc welding made it possible to increase the strength of the weld and, as a consequence, the efficiency of repairs of large-scale units and mechanisms: crankshafts, steam cylinders, gear wheels, etc. At the World Electrotechnical Exhibition of 1893, Nikolay Slavyanov was awarded a medal with the wording "For the technical revolution produced".
The research of Alexander Skochinsky, a professor at St. Petersburg University, in the field of combating methane emissions in mine workings and mine fires, as well as the introduction of methods developed by him to reduce the dustiness of mines, made it possible to drastically reduce the number of casualties among miners.
The scientist, in particular, established the dependence of methane-abundance of mines on their location and developed a statistical method of predicting the gas saturation of rocks. For many years it was used by mining engineers all over the world: thanks to the ability to predict how much gas would be released in the process of work in the face, it was possible to avoid many errors in the design, construction and operation of mines.
The result of the geological expedition led by Pavel Preobrazhensky was the discovery of the Volga-Ural oil and gas province. Exploitation of its deposits during the Great Patriotic War made it possible to meet the increased demand of the state for fuel. And in the post-war years it became the first in the USSR in terms of the number of barrels produced, surpassing the Baku province. For example, in 1965 more than 71 per cent of domestic oil was produced there.
Due to the development of fields in Western Siberia, the share of the "Second Baku" gradually began to decline. Now the degree of depletion of reserves there is about 65%. Nevertheless, in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, the Samara and Orenburg Regions and the Perm Territory, one can still see numerous rocking machines lifting one of the most valuable natural resources Russia possesses from the subsoil. About 90 million tonnes of black gold are brought to the market every year.
Alexander Kuznetsov, a professor at the Leningrad Mining Institute, together with a group of co-authors, proposed to the military a new explosive substance "Sinal" (Si N Al), created on the basis of an aluminium-silicon mixture and developed initially for work in quarries. It used Cambrian clay as an active additive, which was plentiful on the outskirts of the city. In conditions of ammunition shortage, this innovation was a real scientific breakthrough and made it possible to provide the Leningrad front with grenades and explosives.
In the second half of the 1970s, it became obvious that the aluminium production technology that existed in the USSR did not make it possible to produce the highest grade of metal demanded by the aerospace industry, aircraft construction and a number of other industries. A scientific breakthrough in this area, made by Viktor Sizyakov, Professor of the Metallurgy Department of the Leningrad Mining Institute, not only brought the quality of aluminium smelters' products to a level unparalleled throughout the world, but also made it possible to increase the profitability of core enterprises.
The scientist proposed to introduce into production the technology of complete desilicification of nepheline, from which alumina for aluminium production was obtained. This became possible due to the synthesis of a new class of super active ion exchangers - calcium hydrocarboaluminates in the medium of strong electrolytes. Victor Sizyakov is still working at the university - he continues to work on improving materials and alloys, as well as passing on his unique experience to young people.
Specialists from St. Petersburg Mining University for the first time opened the subglacial Lake Vostok in Antarctica, which lies under the ice shell of the Sixth Continent at a depth of 3,769 metres, and took unique samples of relict water (this ecosystem has been isolated from the outside world for millions of years). The world scientific community recognised the achievement of Russian scientists as unique and comparable in its level to the first human space flight.
In 2015, representatives of the Mining University and the Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic were awarded the Russian Government Prize in Science and Technology "for the development of theoretical foundations of environmentally friendly technologies and technical means of drilling, as well as their implementation in the conditions of Antarctic glaciers". By this time they had already managed to penetrate the lake twice, prove the cyclical nature of the Earth's climate change and trace, thanks to the data collected, four glacial and interglacial periods.
Now the work on the White Continent continues. Every year scientists of the Mining University are sent to Antarctica to drill wells and test in the field new core technologies, which, as 50 years ago, are still created by the specialists of St. Petersburg University. One of the tasks is to obtain ice cores from different depths for their further study in the AARI laboratories. The fact is that due to constant negative temperatures precipitation falling in the East does not melt, but year after year accumulates, compacts into firn and then turns into ice, which gradually spreads from the centre of the continent to its edges.
The one that lies on the surface is modern, while the lower it is, the older it is. Last season, for example, specialists from the Mining University lifted a core from a depth of 3,514 metres. Its age is about one million years, which means that research into the gas and isotopic composition of this cylinder will allow us to find out what events were taking place in the Earth's atmosphere at that time and what consequences they led to, and will also help to clarify the forecast of climatic changes for the future.
Every year, the research activities of the university's scientists are becoming more and more extensive, and more and more domestic companies are becoming its customers. In 2021, five new research centres were established at St. Petersburg Mining University in order to separate the scientific and educational processes, but at the same time to retain the opportunity to attract talented young people to research. This decision was taken in order to ensure that the most valuable instruments would be in the hands of leading scientists who are engaged in the most important areas of research, involving representatives of the relevant departments, postgraduates and students.
Largely due to this conjuncture, the employees of the St. Petersburg Mining University have already received this year several trial batches of needle coke, which is not yet produced in our country. Moreover, the exceptional quality of this high-margin product, which is essential for the production of lithium-ion batteries and graphite electrodes, i.e. conductors used for heating and melting metal in electric arc furnaces, has been confirmed by external experts.
The cost of needle coke is ten times higher than that of conventional coke. But in order to produce it, it is necessary to carefully calculate all the parameters of the equipment and determine the qualitative characteristics of the feedstock - waste left after oil refining. Any error in calculations can affect the properties of the final product and, consequently, its price. In order to avoid such a development of events, it is necessary to conduct a huge number of experiments related to the separation of heavy fractions and analysis of the obtained result.
The relevance of this work lies in the fact that the USSR in the 70-80s built new oil refineries in the territories that are now part of other states - Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. As a result, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited 26 morally and physically obsolete production facilities, 8 of which were launched before the Great Patriotic War, five - immediately after it, and nine - in the fifties. The only exception was the Achinsk Refinery, which was commissioned in 1982. In this regard, the average depth of oil refining in our country in the nineties of the last century did not exceed 65%. And now, despite the fact that this figure has reached 84%, it is still extremely low.
So scientists need to look for solutions how to increase this figure, because fuel oil, tar and other oil refining wastes are becoming less and less demanded on the market. One of the solutions is the production of needle coke, the production of which, thanks to a series of experiments carried out in the laboratories of the University, is now quite feasible to localise in Russia.
Increasing the productivity of Siberian gas fields
New blocking compositions or crosslinkers created in the laboratories of the Arktika research centre of Russia's first technical university have already undergone pilot tests at the Kovykta gas condensate field this year. Their introduction into production will make it possible to avoid problems in drilling wells, which arise there due to uncontrolled inflow of brine. Salty groundwater disrupts circulation of drilling fluids, which leads to their absorption by the formation, and this in turn provokes additional equipment downtime and decreases production profitability.
Taking into account that the Kovykta field, along with the Chayandinskoye field, is a resource base for Russian gas supplies to China, this is a serious problem. After all, on the agenda is the project of construction of the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline, which, due to the Europeans' refusal to cooperate with Russia in the energy sector, may become a significant source of profit for Gazprom, one of the largest taxpayers in our country. But before we start implementing this idea, it is necessary to create conditions for increasing the well flow rate. Otherwise, it will be extremely difficult to put it into practice.
Actually, this is the task that the scientists of the Mining University have been solving. Tests of blocking compositions developed by them on one of the wells of the Kovykta gas condensate field showed "stabilisation of circulation, without significant manifestation of brine". Laboratory experiments, during which the optimal components of the crosslinker for this particular field were selected, continued for six months.
Liquidation of the Korkinsky open pit mine
Among the most important tasks already implemented by the university is a scientific audit of the project for the liquidation of the Korkinsky open pit mine, where coal mining has been carried out since 1934. Its length is 3 kilometres, width - 2.5 kilometres, and depth - about five hundred metres. The works there have long been abandoned, but despite this, the site even after their completion was a source of negative impact on the environment and health of local residents. Localised endogenous fires caused by spontaneous combustion of rock occurred there from time to time, and the slopes also collapsed, threatening nearby buildings.
Today the slopes have become stable. Moreover, during the reinforcement works, geomechanics of the Mining University constantly travelled to the site and personally supervised the process. Environmentalists also participated in the project and monitored the air quality in Korkino and concluded that it had improved significantly.
Full reclamation of the territory will take several decades. This time will be required to fill the Korkinsky open pit with compacted, dewatered backfill material prepared on the basis of Tominsky GOK's tailings. Its upper horizon will be filled with soil and planted with trees. Eventually, a park zone with a lake will appear there instead of the object dangerous for nature and population.
Of course, these three projects are only a small part of the work that is going on today in the laboratories of the university. Moreover, as it follows from the statements of its management, even more large-scale tasks are ahead. After all, at the meeting of the Organising Committee for preparing and holding the celebration of the anniversary of St. Petersburg Mining University, which took place in August under the chairmanship of Valentina Matvienko, the focus was not on the celebrations, but on the further development of Russia's first higher technical education institution. It includes, among other things, drilling of two ultra-deep wells up to 8 thousand metres for thermodynamic research of hydrocarbon genesis and search for deep oil. In addition, the university will continue to conduct research in the field of hydrogen energy, improving the safety of miners, including through the automation of production facilities, obtaining new materials and alloys with unique properties, increasing oil recovery, reducing the man-made load on nature and much more.
Hydrogen energy is one of the most relevant areas of research in the world today. Scientists of St. Petersburg Mining University are also engaged in this area of activity, and their achievements are recognised by the scientific community of many countries around the world. If we talk about the efficient production of electrical energy from the lightest gas in nature, the university specialists have come to an unambiguous conclusion: at the present stage of civilisation development it is possible only by electrochemical method, with the help of so-called hydrogen fuel cells. In essence, they represent a battery.
To build a car or bus that runs on hydrogen (H2), from the technological point of view, of course, it is possible, and this has been repeatedly proved by various companies that have presented prototypes of such transport to the general public. The problem is that they are economically unprofitable, and no breakthroughs that would change the situation are expected. That is, all these prototypes will be used for a long time only for presentation purposes.
But research in the field of hydrogen production, transport, storage and combustion in the electromagnetic induction cycle, which is the main method of electricity and heat generation at CHPs, has shown the ephemeral prospects for its use instead of natural gas. The fact is that existing generation systems are designed for a combustion temperature of 1500 to 2500°C. Hydrogen's temperature is much higher than this level. In other words, in order to implement technologies based on the use of the first number of the Mendeleev table as a global energy resource, mankind needs, at least from scratch, to build all the necessary infrastructure for this purpose.
These are colossal expenditures. However, before they are made, if for some reason such an investment is deemed appropriate, a huge number of experiments in the field of materials science and other related fields of science must be carried out. After all, hydrogen is a gas capable of penetrating the crystal lattice of almost any steel. And in order to ensure its safe production, transport, storage and use, super strong alloys are needed. Obviously, much more expensive than those used today. There is another problem: the formation of nitrogen oxide NO2 during the combustion of hydrogen. This is a poisonous gas with asphyxiating effects.
Summarising all the above it can be noted that taking into account the physical laws of the world around us, thermodynamic and logistical disadvantages of H2 it will take many decades, and maybe even centuries for it to displace hydrocarbons and become an integral part of the global energy industry. At the same time, specialists from Russia's first technical university have obtained encouraging results in the use of core technologies in petrochemicals and agrochemicals.
The scientists of St. Petersburg Mining University traditionally pay much attention to such a research area as the contribution of the mineral and raw materials sector to the achievement of sustainable development goals. According to the representatives of the university, it will be possible to achieve them only in case of effective management of resources by the state. Of course, as a regulator, rather than a participant in the production process, this function should be left to private business.
Currently, various forms of civil law relations between governments and extractive companies are used in different countries. However, the vast majority of them do not take into account the need to increase reserves, the need to create added value, or the expectations of the local population, including in the area of environmental management. There is no clear government policy aimed at creating "rules of the game" that are mutually beneficial for business and the state and contribute to more efficient management of mineral resources. At the same time, the economy of any state, including our country, can be self-sufficient only with professional market regulation of the process of extraction and growth of reserves.
For example, today mining or oil and gas companies get their main profit from the export of raw materials, so they are not too interested in the construction of processing, in particular, oil and gas chemical enterprises. As emphasised by Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of the St. Petersburg Mining University, "although such projects are high-margin, they require huge financial investments, i.e. they are at the same time high-risk". The government's task is to assess what factors (tax deductions, soft loans or something else) motivate an investor and create the most favourable business climate possible.
"We need to move from siloed and often inefficient resource management to a more integrated model. But to do this, we need a transparent and capable state mineral policy. It should not only determine the volume of production at certain deposits, but also declare such indicators as the growth of the resource base; the involvement of minerals in deep processing; the creation of full-fledged technological chains within the country aimed at the production of end-use products; the number of specialists in certain areas of training that should leave the walls of universities, and so on. Only then can our natural wealth, which is inert in itself, be effectively transformed into human, social and physical capital. Strengthening state regulation is the best way to ensure a balance between supply and demand, and thus the sustainability of the domestic economy. Including at the expense of minimising the technogenic impact on nature," said Vladimir Litvinenko.
He also noted that all the experiments and development plans of the St. Petersburg Mining University are aimed at realising the strategic task that the university has been facing for 250 years. It is to improve the efficiency of the mineral and raw materials complex, which is the backbone of the national economy, and, as a consequence, the quality of life of all Russians without exception.