OIL-SHALE PROCESSING AT NEWNES

What is on this page:
  What is on this page:
1. Overview 2. Some Dates 3. The Mines 4. Retorting 5. Retort Products
6. Distillation 7. Treatment 8. Wax Extraction 9. Naphtha Plant 10. Other Areas
11. Summary Go to the bottom of this page for links to other pages on this web site.

In the following text: Items of plant are shown in Heavy type. The various products are shown in Blue type.

1. Overview:
The oil-shale industry at Newnes was based on the production of a range of oil products from Torbanite, a type of oil-shale rock. This was done by:
  1. Mining the rock and conveying it to the retorts or stockpiles;
  2. Selling the richer grades to gas companies, who used the shale to enrich "town" gas, a gas otherwise made from coal;
  3. Retorting the lesser grades of rock to produce a type of crude oil;
  4. The distillation and treatment of this crude oil into a range of products for eventual sale.
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2. Some dates:
There were three distinct operating periods at Newnes:
  1. 1906 - 1912
    The Commonwealth Oil Corporation (COC) period, mainly a period of construction.
    From an operating perspective, the COC period ended due to, labour troubles, difficulties experienced with the retorts that were used and the lack of funds to correct matters.
  2. 1914 - 1923
    The Fell period, which was the main operating period.
    Fell modified certain COC practices and made the operation fairly viable. Unfortunately labour problems, in particular restrictive mining practices, led to the eventual closure of the works at Newnes.
  3. 1931 - 1932
    The Shale Oil Development Committee period.
    This was a nine-month government work relief program during the Depression.
Construction at Glen Davis commenced in 1938 and this operation replaced Newnes. Some items of plant were transferred from Newnes to Glen Davis. Glen Davis itself closed in 1952.
What was left of Newnes was sold for scrap in 1946 and most recoverable material had been removed by the mid 1950s. The formation of Wollemi National Park in 1978 resumed all the old mining lease areas, including the site of the Newnes works.
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3. The mines:
There were two shale mines and a coal mine.
The No.2 Shale Mine, located east of the works and south of the river was the main mine used during the life of the works. There were three entrances to it and some above-ground relics associated with this mine survive to this day. This mine extended under the cliff line and the cliffs above still show signs of large rock falls that resulted from this practice.
The No.1 Shale Mine was located opposite the works on the north side of the river where some remains of several entrances can be traced. It was intended that this mine would link with workings on the Capertee River side of the intervening mountains, but this was never completed.
The Coal Mine was located west of the works and extended westwards underneath the talus. A Coke trade was operated during the COC period, but Fell only used the mine for local (locomotives, powerhouse, etc.) purposes.
The oil-shale rock was conveyed to the retorts by a series of Skipways to a Breaker located near the No.1 Shale Mine. From here a large trestle Gantry crossed the river to the retorts.
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4. Retorting:
The oil-shale rock was converted into an oil by "destructive distillation"; the rock being heated until it broke down to form an oily vapour and an ash residue. This was done in a bench of 64 Retorts of the Scottish "Pumpherston" type, each retort being a vertical tube, the upper part of iron, the lower of firebricks. These retorts were intended for continuous operation, being fed from the top, the oil being drawn off from the side and the ash being removed from the bottom. In its original form, with the iron upper section, these retorts were designed to maximise the production of ammonia from the nitrogen present in the gas.
Unfortunately, problems developed with these retorts in coping with the relatively rich Australian torbanites. Modifications of up to 32 retorts were made by Fell that involved building extra off-takes for the gas and the elimination of the ammonia section. The retorts then worked reasonably efficiently.
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5. Retort Products:
The gas from the retorts was fed through a set of Atmospheric Condensers which condensed most of the gas into a type of Crude Oil, then through a set of Ammonia Scrubbers, a water wash which disolved any ammonia present. This process was driven by a set of Exhausters. The ammonia water was then Separated from the oil; the ammonia water going to the Sulphate House for conversion into Sulphate of Ammonia (a fertiliser) and the oil going on to the Crude Oil Stills below the retorts. Meanwhile the remaining gas was passed through a set of Naphtha Scrubbers, an oil wash that removed further light-end oils (Scrubber Naphtha) from the gas. Having extracted as much oil as was possible, any remaining gas was then used as Fuel in the retorts.
After the elimination of ammonia recovery during the Fell period, the Ammonia Scrubbers were relocated and used as as a simple cleaning wash for the crude oil.
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6. Distillation:
The break up of the crude oil into various marketable products was achieved by repeated distillation and treatment. This was not a very efficient process and processing losses of up to 25% of the original oil could be expected.
There were two main sets of stills: the Crude Oil Stills being first and the Heavy Oil Stills in a subsequent process. Each consisted of three Boilers and a series of Coking Stills, the oil firstly being passed through the boilers for fractioning, then into one of the coking stills where the oil was evaporated to dryness (any residual, a Coke, having then to be chipped out). At all stages the vapour coming off ran through Condensers (usually a coil of tubing in a tank of water) then into Receiver tanks for storage.
There was also a set of Lubricating Oil Stills for producing very heavy end products from Blue Oil (the residual oil product from the Heavy Oil stills) and the Fine Oil Boilers, which were used in the production and treatment of Kerosene.
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7. Treatment:
After each stage of distillation, the oil was fed into a Charging Tank, then treated firstly by an Acid Wash then a Soda Wash. The tiered sets of circular brickwork high above the various stills are the foundations of the tanks used for this work. Acid and soda stock was kept in lead lined tanks or lined wooden boxes.
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8. Wax Extraction:
Green Oil, the heavy end product of the crude oil stills, was treated to extract paraffin wax prior to further distillation in the heavy oil stills. This was carried out in the Paraffin Sheds, a still substantial structure just below the atmospheric condensers. The wax was Sweated (cleaned) and eventually formed into Candles at the Candle Factory.
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9. Naphtha Plant:
Motor Spirit (earlier called Benzine at Newnes) was made here from the naphtha obtained from the scrubbers and some other processing stages. Sorry, but those "petrol in the creek" stories are just figments of local mythology.
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10. Other areas of Plant:
  • The Coal Mine, located west of the works, provided Coal for the locomotives, power house and the retorts (as required). During the COC period, Coke Ovens were built and a trade in Metalurgical Coke was conducted with several businesses located in Lithgow. This business finished when COC left Newnes. Although the coke ovens form a substantial ruin, it should be remembered that this was a sideline business and not an important part of the main operation.
  • The Power House and Workshops were important support areas of the works.
  • Water was used in most areas of the plant, so the Pump House on the river, the Reservoir on the hill and the Dirty Water Pond downstream are all elements of this use.
  • Most of the Common Bricks used at Newnes were made in the Brickworks west of the works and over the river. However, the firebricks used in the retorts and the coke ovens were made elsewhere.
  • There was an extensive Administration area on the hill above the brickworks.
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11. Summary:
The processing plant used at Newnes was based on 19th Century technology and it was probably obsolete by the time it came on line in 1911. Overseas, the increasing demand for motor spirit, coupled with a declining demand for kerosene and other products lead to developments in oil refining, such as cracking and reforming. By the 1920s, Fell had decided to install a Cracking Plant, but ended up building it at Clyde, a suburb of Sydney. That the Newnes plant was obsolete and would need extensive rebuilding, was just one of the factors leading to the decision, in the mid 1930s, to relocate oil-shale production to the Capertee Valley at what was to became Glen Davis.
A detailed flowchart, supposedly of the Newnes operation, was first published in the Australian Mining and Engineering Review in 1910 and that chart has since been reprinted in some modern publications. However, the chart appears to be a description of Scottish practice of that day and differs in some ways to what was actually carried out at Newnes. The chart does, however, illustrate the numerous steps of distillation and treatment that were needed to produce saleable products prior to the invention of modern refining methods.
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Do you have any specific questions about Newnes?
You can e-mail us at: "newnes[at]tpg.com.au"

  Links to the "historical" pages on this web site:
Aboriginal Newnes History of Newnes Oil-shale Processing Bibliography Movies at Newnes Allan Watson at Newnes
Names - A to C Names - D to G Names - H to L Names - M to R Names - S to Z Employee list, 1932
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This page last updated 10Jan2013