Vol. 31 No. 3
Mendeleev and Natural Resources
The opinions and views of Mendeleev are quoted in the books Sacred Thoughts and To the Discovery of Russia. His foresight about the origin and use of natural resources is no less meaningful than the periodic table of elements that made his name world famous. In Czarist Russia, Mendeleev’s thoughts about resource exploration were not deservedly appreciated: Oil industry leaders were thinking only of the present day and today’s issues, and not of sustainable development of the country and the communities of the future.
In the Soviet Union, Mendeleev’s work in the fields of economics and resources exploration were criticized because he considered capitalism to be progressive and appreciated it’s value.
The early life of the genius was not simple. The well-known Russian universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg refused to accept the 16-year old Mendeleev as a student. In 1855, he graduated from the Nature Department of the Physics and Mathematics Faculty of the St. Petersburg Pedagogical Institute and left to become a school master.
The first of Mendeleev’s works, published in a scientific journal dedicated to mining while he was still a student, was concerned with resource exploration (resourceology). In this work Mendeleev considered the composition of minerals: orthite (basic silicate) and pyroxene R2[Si2O6] R – Li, Na, Ca, Mg, Fe, Al. He was able to add new knowledge about the behavior of isomorphic crystals.
During the 1862–1863 academic year, when the University of St. Petersburg was closed due to student unrest and professors were free from teaching duties, Mendeleev became engaged in the compilation and editing of the Technical Encyclopaedia. This led to his enthusiasm for oil production and its enormous potential for Russia.
It is well known that Russia is considered to be the birthplace of the first industrial method of distilling oil. The first oil distillation factory was built in 1823 in the region of the town of Mozdok, by the free peasants of the brothers Dubinin. The first experiments in the distillation of oil occurred 10 years later in America. However, it was during this time that an illuminating American commodity materialized in St. Petersburg. It was first known as Photonaphtil or Photogen, and then as Kerosene. American kerosene, imported to Russia via the Atlantic Ocean became cheaper than Russian kerosene. Mendeleev became interested in this sad paradox and ascertained each overly laborious stage of the long journey of Bakinese kerosene to the capital of Russia via the Caspian Sea and Volga River in wooden barrels. He concluded that the outlay on the containers for a repeated shipment, warehouse storage, and transportation far exceeded the production cost of kerosene. Furthermore, the transportation method resulted in large amounts of wasted cargo due to contamination from other oil products.
In these conditions, Russian kerosene could not compete with American kerosene even in the internal market. Many Russian oil refining factories were functioning at a loss. In analyzing the situation, Mendeleev recommended interconnecting piping from the oil wells to the factory, and connecting pipes from the factory to the shipping dock. He suggested transferring oil products not in barrels but in specially designed tanks in the hold of the craft. Hence, the first of oil by tankers was initiated by the Astrakhan ship owners Nikolai and Dmitri Artemyevs on the freighter Alexander. After a prosperous journey from Baku to Astrakhan, the new method gained wide recognition not only in Russia but in the rest of the world, where it was known as the “Russian method.” Thanks to the development of an economically viable method of transportation, Russian kerosene became a competitor on the export market.
Mendeleev was the first to discern the enormous value of oil for the national economy; he energetically insisted that oil be efficiently refined. As early as the 1880s he foresaw the potential of refining not just kerosene from oil but many other useful substances.
Mendeleev was aware of the dangers of creating a monopoly in oil production. He was convinced that monopolization would lead to a high price for oil, to an increase in demand, and eventually to the end of development. He advocated for the presence on the oil market of many large and small industrial developers.
In the summer of 1888, Mendeleev travelled to Donbas to study coal mining industries and sources and also potential methods for reducing the extraction of indigenous coal. As a result of his trip, he wrote a long and public article entitled “Future Strength Slumbering beneath the Banks of the Don.” He was concerned not simply about his own time but about future generations. He was convinced that raw materials should be used wisely. “We could flood the world with oil, we can abundantly supply coal not just to our own industries, but to many places in Europe . . ., iron ore could be converted into any amount of cast iron, iron, and steel, and thus we could compete not only with England and Germany . . . but with the United States of America . . . Don coal, iron, and soda could supply the whole of western Europe.”
Mendeleev foresaw that the extraction of coal would always be economically nonviable and exceedingly laborious. Even today, mineworkers frequently go on strike: on the Gorbaty Bridge in Moscow, in Krivoi Rog, in Donbas, in Kuzbas, as in Scotland, Wales, and Germany. Statistics show that each 1000 tonnes of coal are being paid for by one human life. Mendeleev was deeply concerned about the moral cost from coal mining. One day the idea of carbonating coal came to him, which he revealed in 1880. The idea, unfortunately, has never been realized.
The contemporary concept of sustainable development is evident in Mendeleev’s work “Explanatory Tariff or Exploration of Industrial Development in Russia in Connection with the General Customs Tariff of 1891.” One contemporary described it as “a bible of Russian protectionism and stimulation of industrial development in Russia.” With great accuracy and attention to detail, he analyzed the raw materials of the Russian economy—from raw iron to that little known commodity ”Paraguayan tea” (Herba Matte).
Sadly, political favoritism often leads to the appreciation of commodities, and this can be observed in Russia today. As Mendeleev saw it, protectionist policies regarding such commodities as soda and iron caused an increase in production within the country, which in turn produced a reduction in the sale price.
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