No ancient swamp sludge involved.
21 Apr 11 – Today the vast majority of geologists and geochemists believe that nearly all of the hydrocarbons in crude oil and natural gas were formed by the decomposition of the remains of living organisms, says this article by Brian Westenhaus.
However, a new study from researchers at UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Shell Projects & Technology may turn that old theory on its head. The new research reveals how hydrocarbons may be formed from methane deep in the Earth at extreme pressures and temperatures.
Hydrocarbons may be abiotic, in other words – not formed by the decomposition of the remains of living organisms in some ancient swamp.
Biology is quite good at producing methane – the simplest petroleum hydrocarbon – in prodigious amounts, says Westenhaus. Molecules composed of the elements hydrogen and carbon are the main building block of crude oil and natural gas.
Could the formation of larger hydrocarbon molecules purely from a chemical deep crustal or mantle origin (abiogenic or non biological) occur in some geologic settings, such as rifts or subduction zones? That question might now be answered.
“Our simulation study shows that methane molecules fuse to form larger hydrocarbon molecules when exposed to the very high temperatures and pressures of the Earth’s upper mantle,” explains UC Davis Professor Giulia Galli, a senior author on the study. “The pressures and temperatures alone are right for it to happen.”
Using the Mako computer cluster in Berkeley and computers at Lawrence Livermore to simulate the behavior of carbon and hydrogen atoms at the enormous pressures and temperatures found 40 to 95 miles deep inside the Earth, Galli and colleagues found that hydrocarbons with multiple carbon atoms could form from the methane molecule with only one carbon and four hydrogen atoms. This requires temperatures greater than 1,500º K (2,240º F) and pressures 50,000 times those at the Earth’s surface; conditions (supposedly) found about 70 miles below the surface.
Although the research does not address whether hydrocarbons formed deep in the Earth could migrate closer to the surface and contribute to oil or gas deposits, the study does point to possible microscopic hydrocarbon formation under very high temperatures and pressures.
I agree that hydrocarbons are abiotic, but I take it one step further. I maintain that they were created in the sky during magnetic reversals, and then rained to the earth.
Here’s how I put it in “Magnetic Reversals and Evolutionary Leaps”:
“Hydrocarbons and nitriles constantly fall from Titan’s skies,” said Carl Sagan. Titan (the big moon of Saturn) is socked in as a haze of organic solids formed high in its skies slowly fall and accumulate on its surface. Oceans of water are impossible on Titan (it’s too cold), but “vast oceans of liquid hydrocarbons are expected.”
It’s enough to make a Texas oil man drool,” exclaimed an article in the “Seattle Times”. New images from the Hubble space telescope show that Titan may have lakes of oil as big as all five Great Lakes put together.
If carbon can rain from Titan’s hazy skies (also Jupiter, and perhaps Uranus, and Neptune), then why not here? (“Magnetic Reversals and Evolutionary Leaps,” Chapter 12, “Carbon Rain.”
See entire article, entitled “A Different Idea On Where Hydrocarbons Come From”:
Thanks to James Stafford for this link
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:
Robert: I was with the E & P Geophysics Group at Phillips Petroleum Co. A large part of our deep drilling program in the 1970 was in pursuit of this theory; Exploratory wells in the 21000 – 27000 foot range.
Some of the first deep wells on the Texas panhandle, and Elk City, Ok ended up having unbelievable amounts of high pressure Natural Gas.
Due to the unexpected high pressures some of the operators had some major blowout accidents. One of the first successful wells was drilled by GHK at Elk City, Ok and is still producing over 2MCF/day, which changed out entire theory on where to drill for natural gas. – Jim Ranke
I found your article on the Origin of Hydocarbons quite interesting. A recent article in Canada Free Press presents an interesting history about the theories on the origin of oil (hydrocarbons) http://canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/3952
It is interesting that it was an 18th century Russian who originally theorized that oil was generated from biological detritus but shortly after the second world war the Soviets had determined that oil was abiotic and their oil industry operated on that basis, drilling up to 13 kilometers deep. Also by early in the 19th century several scientists were disputing the biotic theory of the origins of oil. Apparently some scientists have proven the abiotic theory in the lab. I have always found it hard to believe that there has been enough biological detritus to generate trillions of barrels of oil, and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. – George Knapp
I just saw your posing about the formation of hydrocarbons on your web site. I would suggest that you look at the book “The Deep Hot Biosphere” by Thomas Gold. The idea that hydrocarbons were formed deep within the earth, and that hydrocarbons are present elsewhere in the ‘universe’ was an area that Gold was interested in. Gold argued passionately for an “abiogenic” (not biological in origin) theory of oil.
You might want to add this info on your site. – Steve Foster
Thanks Steve. I quote Gold several times in “Magnetic
Reversals and Evolutionary Leaps.” – Robert