Shale oil

another 19th century technology


Shale is a sedimentary rock composed of very fine particles. Shale is usually laminated (you can dig out flat pieces). In Victoria, most shale is yellow. In other places the colour is often grey. If you have walked through wet shale, you will remember the clay sticking to your shoes.

Water was important in the process as high pressure steam was used to drive the volatiles from the shale.
Open cut mining was used. Processes from the shale oil industry in Scotland were later adapted by American oil refiners.
Dr James Young prepared lighting oil, lubricating oil and wax from coal in 1847. Then he moved his operations to Scotland. In 1857, shale mining started at Pumpherston.
Tar produced by the process was the fuel. The steam distillation was important as it was a most efficient method of extracting ammonia.
So important was the industry that there were 120 works throughout England and Scotland in the 1800s. Even in 1927, 20 plants still operated in Scotland.
The volatile content of oil shale was limited so that 75% of the shale mined remained as waste after distillation. The high cost of shale oil brought about its demise.

"The United States is particularly rich in oil-shale deposits, the best-known being those of Colorado
The area of oil-shale land is 2,000 square miles (5,200 sq km). The potential oil content expressed in barrels is nearly 80,000,000 (1,1400,000 tonnes)

Albert Lidgett; Petroleum; Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons; London; 1927; page 112

Ammonia in aqueous solution was an important product. Ammonium sulfate, formed by reaction with sulfuric acid (also from the distillation), was an important source of income.

What is the equation for the ammonia/sulfuric acid reaction?

2NH3(aq) + H2SO4(aq) (NH4)2SO4(aq) + H2O(l)

Before electric lighting was widespread, lamp oil was an important product. Lghthouse oil was a special grade of lamp oil. Diesel fuel and fuel oil were being produced in 1927. We can recognize another product, lubricating oil. Cleaning oil and batching oil were also produced. In 1927 the quality of paraffin wax produced by Scottish Oils at Pumpherston was world renowned. Shale oil was (is) a mixture of alkanes.