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History of oil shale

Simply put – oil shale is an "immature" version of liquid crude oil that has made it through every stage of the transformation process, apart from the final step that would convert it into liquid form. Oil shale developers, such as Enefit, are using advanced technology to speed-up what would otherwise be a slow, geologic process over millions of years to convert the rock into oil.

Unlike crude oil, oil shale is in abundant supply with some estimates placing global reserves at more than triple the world's recoverable crude oil resources. Oil shale is undoubtedly the planet's largest source of untapped liquid hydrocarbons and due to the high price and diminishing reserves of crude oil, advances in oil shale technology have led to increased adoption and interest in the possible wide use of the world's oil shale deposits.

Oil shale experience in Estonia spans 100 years

Formulation of fossil fuels

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History of oil shale usage

Oil shale is often referred to as the "rock that burns" due to the fact it burns without the need for processing. Oil shale has been used as a fuel for thousands of years. In the Middle East, "rock oil" was used in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC as a road construction material and for making architectural adhesives.

Different usages of oil shale
It has also been used as a decorative stone. In Britain there are polished ornaments of oil shale dating from the Iron Age, and the Greeks and Romans used it in mosaics. Elsewhere, shale oil was used for medicinal and military purposes, and the Mongols are reported to have tipped their arrows with flaming oil shale. The first records of oil being extracted from oil shale in Europe date from the early 1300s, and by the end of the 17th century shale oil was being produced in England from mined oil shale. Oil distilled from oil shale was also being used in streetlights in Italy.

Industrial scale production
The first production of oil from oil shale on an industrial scale was developed in France in the 1830s when the chemical pyrolysis of oil shale was achieved by heating oil shale in a retort. In 1850, Scottish chemist James Young patented a process to produce lighting oil, lubricating oil and wax from oil shale, and over the next fifty years, shale oil was being extracted in several countries in Europe, as well as in North America, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. The main focus was on the production of kerosene, lamp oil and paraffin. Thereafter, the industry found it increasingly difficult to compete with the increased production of crude oil.

Revival in oil shale
A revival in oil shale began immediately prior to World War I, partly because of limited access to conventional petroleum resources and partly as a result of increased demand for petroleum brought about by the start of the mass production of cars and trucks. Interest in oil shale projects continued until the 1950s and 1960s, but producers were finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the growing availability of cheaper petroleum. In recent years, interest in the world's vast oil shale resources has been renewed because of higher oil prices and the diminishing reserves of conventional oil.

The peak year for oil shale mining across the globe was 1980, when a total of 47 million tonnes of oil shale were mined, of which 31 million tonnes came from Estonia.