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Whale Oil: Biobased and Bygone


Call me Ishmael. So begins one of the greatest novels ever written in the English language, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Written by Herman Melville and published in 1851, Moby-Dick tells the tale of the obsessed captain Ahab and his quest to kill an albino sperm whale. There was actually a factual basis for the story. In 1820 the whaling ship Essex was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale said to be 80 feet long, and in 1830 a large albino sperm whale was killed off the coast of Chile near the island of Mocha. Because of the locale, the whale was named Mocha Dick.

However, this article is not a book review of Moby-Dick. It is, instead, a story of the sperm whale, its oil and what it all meant then and now.

The origins of whale hunting go back to prehistoric times. Inuit natives hunted whales from both the shore and in boats along the Arctic coast more than 6,000 years ago. Most countries in Europe as well as Japan were whaling before Europeans set foot on the New World. Whaling was first noted in North America about 1650 along the shores of Long Island and then Nantucket, which became the home of American whaling.

Growth continued until the Revolutionary War when it came to a complete standstill. In fact, the next 30 years were marked by contraction, with the whaling fleet not even reaching the size it had been before the war. In 1829 a new boom occurred. At that time, the fleet numbered about 200 ships. By 1846 the it numbered 736 ships, and then settled to about 650 until the Civil War.

The preferred catch was the sperm whale, for its head and body oil. The primary use for whale oil was as an illuminating oil. Good quality sperm whale oil was light in color, low in odor and burned brightly without a great deal of smoke. Other uses were as a clock or watch oil. A problem for ships at sea was the fact that the sea air caused corrosion in ships clocks. The clocks would stop and with that navigational accuracy was lost. Sperm whale oil resisted oxidation and its viscosity was relatively uniform over the range of temperatures encountered. In addition, it was a good corrosion prevention agent. The oil from the head and jaw never seemed to congeal, even at subzero temperatures – a highly useful property.

But, there was trouble on the horizon. The modern petroleum industry had begun in 1859 with the drilling of Col. Edwin Drakes well in Pennsylvania, but that was not the event that derailed the whale oil business. It was the Civil War. Whaling ships were unable to go to sea because the Confederate Navy was capturing and sinking them: 46 to be exact. The industry simply could not continue its normal activity between 1861 and 1865. In the meantime, kerosene was being distilled from crude and was found to be an excellent lamp oil. It became widely available and relatively inexpensive.

After the Civil War, whaling continued as new uses were found for sperm whale oil. In addition to clock and watch oil, other uses for sperm whale oil included sewing machine oil, spindle oil and loom oil – important for the Norths textile mills – as well as other applications requiring a low viscosity, light colored and stable oil with good lubricating characteristics.

Much of whale oils lubricant business naturally centered around New Englands whaling towns such as Nantucket and New Bedford, Mass. For example, Nye Lubricants was founded in 1844 in New Bedford; for over a hundred years it sold sperm whale oil as well as other whale and marine mammal oils for lubricant and fuel uses. In fact, one of its more recognizable products was porpoise-jaw oil, which was also highly prized as a clock and watch oil. Obviously, sperm whale oil was more readily available than porpoise-jaw oil. A full-grown male sperm whale might contain between 2,300 and 2,800 gallons of oil in all.

As petroleum products began to replace whale oil for lubrication, the special properties of sperm whale oil became valued as an additive component. Used as an additive in light petroleum oils, whale oil made an excellent low-friction lubricant. When whale oil was reacted with sulfur (10 percent by weight), a relatively low viscosity, noncorrosive, extreme pressure agent was produced. Sulfurized sperm oil has been used in gear oils, greases, automatic transmission fluids, and as an antiwear agent in engine oils. It has also been used in metalworking fluids. There were also phosphosulfurized additives made from sperm whale oil which were used in hypoid gear oil formulations with great success.

The final blow to the sperm whale oil business, at least in the United States, came in 1970 when the importation of whale oil or any other part of the whale was outlawed due to animal conservation activism. It was no longer possible to use sperm whale oil or derivatives in any product manufactured or imported into the United States. By then, the sperm whale population had been diminished by about two-thirds, from its early-1880s population of more than a million.

The ban on whale oil set off a flurry of research activity to find substitutes. Sperm whale oil differs from mineral oil in that it is a fatty ester. That chemical structure is what gives sperm whale oil its unique properties.

Many products were tried as substitutes. Among them were products such as lard oil and tallow, which are triglycerides. While these have gained a place in the product lineup, they didnt do quite the same job. Some of the other products tried included methyl esters of fatty acids, such as methyl oleate. Again, these had a place but didnt measure up to sperm whale oil. The search then expanded into the area of plant chemistry, looking for a product which had the chemistry of sperm whale oil.

One candidate was from an unlikely plant that grows wild in the southwestern United States, the jojoba plant. Jojoba oil is an ester similar to sperm whale oil, with most if not all of the same properties. There was just one problem: It was not cultivated at the time and one jojoba shrub didnt produce anything like a whale, volume-wise. There was a concerted effort to grow jojoba on a commercial scale so that it would replace sperm whale oil, but that never really happened (although it still could, given the renewed interest in industrial uses for seed oils). Growth has been sufficient however for jojoba to become a highly prized and highly priced ingredient in cosmetic and personal care products such as hand cremes, shampoos and makeup.

In the end, some lubricant oils and additives were synthesized to partially replace sperm whale oil, while many of the applications once reserved for its use found other materials to do the job. So for lubricants, a three-century industrial involvement with the whale came to an end. Unfortunately other countries still hunt whales, so the leviathan can only hope to live in peace, not stalked by Ahabs descendants.

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