Oil shale mining in Estonia

Selective mining improves quality in oil shale extraction

Oil shale is a type of rock consisting of both organic carbon and mineral constituents. Oil shale resources are estimated to amount to some 10 quintillion tonnes worldwide. The amount of oil they would yield exceeds the current total oil reserves by as much as 50 percent. Some 5 billion tonnes of oil shale occur in Estonia, 1.5 billion tonnes of which can be considered recoverable and are mostly enclosed by limestone deposits. The northern European country alone realizes some 70 percent of the global oil shale production. Oil shale mining enabled Estonia to secure a high level of independence in energy supply. In addition, the mining of oil shale has meanwhile become a major factor influencing oil prices on a global scale. Three methods have to date established themselves in oil shale mining:

  • drilling and blasting
  • semi-selective mining using rippers,bulldozers and excavators
  • surface mining as an entirely selective mining method

A direct comparison between the three methods used in Estonia has shown that the surface mining technology offers clear advantages in terms of the run-of-mine (ROM) material quality. Estonia’s leading oil shale producers, “Kiviöli Keemiatööstuse” (short: Kiviöli) and “Eesti Energia Mining”, therefore rely on the use of the Wirtgen surface miners.

An economical way to self-sufficiency in resources using surface miners

The endeavour to mine oil shale in Estonia has long been characterized by the notion of self-sufficiency in resources. The use of surface miners has now given priority also to the economic efficiency of the mining process. Oil shale mining in Estonia began as early as 1916. Four deposits are currently operated as opencast mines, generating ap-proximately 50 percent of the country’s entire oil shale production.

The mining material is processed in two different ways: Kiviöli supplies refineries for the production of heavy fuel oil, while Eesti Energia Mining supplies power plants for elec-tric power generation. Both companies use a 2500 SM for mining. Comparing conven-tional methods with the surface mining technology clearly shows that selective mining results in tremendous economic benefits for the companies both in heavy fuel oil pro-duction and energy generation.

The Wirtgen 2500 SM surface miner

The 2500 SM is a heavy-duty, high-performance miner equipped with a 2.5 m wide cut-ting drum for material mining. Depending on rock hardness, it achieves cutting perfor-mances of up to 1,400 tonnes per hour – as is the case in coal and oil shale mining. The design of the 2500 SM minimizes the time required for maintenance procedures: vital machine components, such as the cutting drum, offer easy access to allow the quick replacement of wear parts, such as cutting tools. Over 50 miners of type 2500 SM are in operation around the globe.

Wirtgen GmbH has developed the 4200 SM for even higher performance levels: this surface miner is capable of loading heavy-duty trucks of up to 200 tonnes in a mere matter of minutes. Being the biggest Wirtgen surface miner, it is capable of mining up to 12 million tonnes per year in soft rock.

Comparative testing of the mining methods

The use of Wirtgen surface miners in Estonia allowed a direct comparison to be drawn between surface mining and the conventional mining processes of drilling and blasting and semi-selective mining. The comparative test assessed quantitative parameters, such as the ROM, but also included qualitative aspects, such as the calorific value of the mining material.

Method 1: drilling and blasting

In non-selective mining, the material is loosened by means of blasting and then loaded onto trucks by excavators. In the process, the oil shale mingles with the embedded limestone. Prior to processing, the material extracted by blasting needs to be crushed in crushing plants.

Method 2: semi-selective mining

Semi-selective mining does not use drilling and blasting. Oil shale and limestone are extracted and loaded using rippers, bulldozers and excavators. This process also results in a significant degree of mixing between the two materials. Both oil shale and limestone are of a plate-like nature. As a result, crushers are required to achieve the specified particle size.

Method 3: surface mining

Surface miners are equipped with a rotating cutting drum enabling precise adjustment of the cutting depth to within a centimetre to cut the different layers of rock. The highly selective mining process enables separate extraction of the oil shale and limestone layers. The use of primary crushers is eliminated as surface miners cut, crush and load the material in a single working pass.

The test results at a glance

The comparative test was performed in the Kiviöli mine. The deposit encompasses an area of approx. 6 acres. Mining operations began in 2003. Production amounts to some 800,000 tonnes of oil shale per year. The layer of earth covering the material has a thickness ranging from 2 m to 20 m. The oil shale occurs in horizontal layers and seam thicknesses of 0.2 m to 0.6 m. The oil shale seams are partly interspersed with lime-stone deposits. Unconfined compressive strengths of oil shale and limestone range from 15 to 40 MPa and from 40 to 100 MPa respectively. The calorific value of the dif-ferent oil shale seams ranges from 1,200 to 4,500 kCal/kg.

The comparative test was performed by Damian Baranowski, graduate engineer and member of staff of the “Department of Mining Engineering” at the German University of Aachen. The parameters relating to the conventional mining methods were taken from the first years of operation in which drilling and blasting as well as semi-selective mining was used. The results of the surface mining process were collected during the use of a 2500 SM by Kiviöli from 2006.

Drilling and blasting Semi-selective mining Semi-selective mining
ROM 85%
(4.2 t/m2)
(3.8 t/m2)
(4.5 t/m2)
Calorific value 1,750 kCal/kg
2,080 kCal/kg
2,480 kCal/kg
Ratio of overbur-den
to useful mineral

Surface miners impress with quality and quantity

The selective extraction using surface miners enabled each layer to be removed in a separate operation. The yield of oil shale per square metre was increased, while the material quality was improved at the same time.

Drilling and blasting, on the other hand, led to a significant degree of mixing between the oil shale and limestone deposits, thus reducing the calorific value of the oil shale. Semi-selective mining produced material of a higher calorific value than that obtained by drilling and blasting but is a highly complex mining process that requires a multitude of mining machines.

Surface miners, on the other hand, enable high-quality oil shale to be extracted in a se-lective process using a single machine. The high quality of the mining product makes it suitable for both oil production and energy generation. The selective mining process additionally enables the limestone to be sold as a separate final product.

Economical advantages of surface mining

Wirtgen GmbH specializes in supporting customers in complex mining situations with its extensive expertise in cutting technology. This allows the surface miners to be precisely customized to the mining of materials of different rock hardnesses. Selective mining improves the final product quality while enabling the economical use of by-products at the same time.

Surface mining dispenses with the need for primary crushers as the miner produces particle sizes of less than 100 mm. The overall investment cost in mining equipment is reduced. Yet another advantage of the small particle size: trucks can accept 10% more material per truck load, which reduces the number of trucks, fuel consumption rates and maintenance costs.

Surface mining: an exceptionally eco-friendly and safe mining method

Oil shale is mined in both opencast and underground operations. In opencast mining, which is where surface miners are used, the oil shale is partly covered by layers of earth having thicknesses of 2 m to 30 m. This is where the environmental advantages of surface mining are most obvious: Lower volumes of soil need to be removed to ex-tract the same quantity of oil shale.

  • Lower volumes of overburden per tonne of material need to be moved as Wirt-gen surface miners enable higher quantities of useful material per square metre to be mined in comparison with other mining methods.
  • Surface mining entirely dispenses with drilling and blasting: there are no vibra-tions, and the excessive noise pollution caused by blasting is eliminated.
  • Yet another aspect of environmental friendliness is the low level of dust gener-ated during the cutting process.
The cut material can be deposited as a windrow either behind or next to the surface miner. Alternatively, it can be directly loaded onto trucks for immediate removal.

The cut material can be deposited as a windrow either behind or next to the surface miner. Alternatively, it can be directly loaded onto trucks for immediate removal.

Conclusion: surface mining impresses as a state-of-the-art mining technology

Direct comparative testing in the Estonian oil shale mining operation showed Wirtgen surface miners to be superior to conventional mining methods. Both the productivity of the machines and the high quality of the material mined in the selective process spoke for themselves. The additional cost benefits resulting from higher truck filling levels, as well as positive aspects in terms of environmental protection and safety have made surface mining the preferred mining method.

Comparative testing between the three mining methods was performed in a mine lo-cated in the western oil shale deposits of Estonia. Direct comparative testing in the Es-tonian oil shale mining operation showed Wirtgen surface miners to be superior to con-ventional mining methods.

Comparative testing between the three mining methods was performed in a mine lo-cated in the western oil shale deposits of Estonia. Direct comparative testing in the Es-tonian oil shale mining operation showed Wirtgen surface miners to be superior to con-ventional mining methods.