People first became aware of the effects of methane in mines in the 18th century. At this time, coal mining was becoming a lucrative business in Great Britain and, in order to increase extraction volumes, deeper and, as it turned out later, more dangerous horizons were being explored. The earliest known mass death of miners took place in 1705 in County Durham in the north of England. The victims were 30 people. The next tragedy did not take long and happened three years later in the same area in an explosion in the Fatfield mine where 69 miners lost their lives. The cause of the accidents was so-called 'mine gas', which reacts when exposed to open fire. It went so far as to have Anglican priests recite prayers referring to the cursed gas as the spawn of the Devil before lowering the workers into the mine.
To protect themselves from its effects, people cut additional excavations in the coal mining area - the gas spread through them and mixed with the air. The mixture then had to be ignited before it exploded. A special man was hired to do the risky work - in England he was called the "Fireman" and in France the "Penitent Sinner". The worker wore wet clothes and a glass mask to protect his eyes. The arsonist would take a long pole with a torch at the end, lie down, crawl into the excavation and cause an explosion. The mining operations could then continue in relative safety. Sometimes a cage with a canary was taken underground as an indicator and its singing was used as a guide. As soon as the bird fell silent for a long time or lost consciousness, it had to leave the pit immediately. This meant that there were large quantities of poisonous substances in the air.
A hundred years after the first explosions in English coal mines, the British chemist and geologist August Wilhelm von Hoffmann proved that mine gas is a mixture of methane with nitrogen and carbon dioxide. At that time it was already known that natural methane was colourless and odourless. It is found in coal seams where organic residues decompose. Methane gas lodged in voids in the rock could be ignited at any time by the slightest spark and would be released at the same time as the rock broke up.
These scientific findings coincided with one of the most widespread tragedies in the English coal mines. An explosion at Felling mine, near Gateshead, killed 92 miners, 30 of them children and adolescents aged from 8 to 16. The event prompted the authorities to set up the Sunderland Society, consisting of ministers, doctors, mine owners and executives. The main aim of the organisation was to scientifically investigate the ventilation of underground workings, the causes of sudden explosions and the development of safety lamps. The last point was of special importance, as the main cause of accidents was considered to be an open fire in the underground - oil lamps, candles or flares used to light the workings. After the start of the society, several types of new lamps were created. Among them was the Geordie lamp, with air supplied through narrow tubes through which the flame could not move. Humphry Davy invented another safety design, the Davy lamp, in which the flame was surrounded by an iron mesh. But all of these did not provide adequate safety in operation.
A truly innovative invention was Karl Wolff's petrol lamp, which was already constructed at the end of the 19th century. The emergence of this safety device, which shone brightly and emitted no soot, saved thousands of lives. Among the miners of the time it was known as the 'Benefactor'. The inventor combined the work of his predecessors in one lamp.
It had a safety net, a glass cylinder around the flame, a lower air supply and a bolt that could only be opened by a magnet weighing over 10 kilos. Each miner could re-light the lamp if it went out without endangering himself or his comrades. The construction also served to detect the presence of mine gas. It was done by lowering the flame of the lamp and lifting it upwards to the roof of the pit. If a blue halo appeared around it, this would mean that there was methane in the air. The device was so successful that it served as an analogue for improved designs, which were in use until the 1930s when they were replaced by battery-powered lamps.
Models of the mid-nineteenth and twentieth century Wolf safety gasoline lamp are preserved in the exhibition of the St Petersburg Mining Museum. In the collection dedicated to mine lighting, you can also see clay lamps from an ancient lead mine, the first Devi lamp and battery lamps from the Soviet period.
What yesterday was almost a curse in Europe's coal-based energy consumption is now a much sought-after resource. Pipeline and liquefied gas, for which demand continues to grow steadily around the world, is a mixture of naturally occurring gaseous hydrocarbons, consisting mainly of methane. Humankind extracts more than 3.5 trillion cubic metres of this valuable resource every year.
Translated by Diego Monterrey, for Northwest Forpost.