Friday, March 07, 2008

Oil not a Fossil-Fuel?

Two recent sources of evidence suggest there may be a non-biological origin for petroleum. One concerns this planet, Earth and the other the Saturnian moon, Titan. One study from the University of Washington has shown that hydrocarbons enriched in the isotope C-13 bubble-up from the ocean floor in the hypothermal "Lost City" field along the mid-Atlantic ridge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and 2,100 feet below the ocean surface. An excess of C-13 is believed to signify an abiotic origin, while a decrease in C-13 (compared to a mean natural isotopic abundance of around 1% for C-13, and 99% C-12) is associated with a biotic (biological) source. On Titan, there is evidence for the presence of more hydrocarbons than exist on Earth, where it is thought too cold for biological life to exist, and which thus cannot be invoked to explain their presence.

There are two theories for the origin of petroleum, the biotic and abiotic. The former is held mainly by geologists in the West and the latter is also known as the Russian/Ukrainan theory of Petroleum, which is where belief in it preponderates. The biotic theory holds that petroleum is the result of cooking animal and plant remains in near-surface regions of the Earth over millennia, while the abiotic theory is that petroleum is produced by the natural forces of geology, as a result of chemical processes within the Earth. One of the main proponents of the abiotic theory was the great Russian chemist, Mendeleev who devised the Periodic table of the Chemical Elements, and thought that petroleum was formed by the reaction of water with metal, principally iron, carbides deep within the Earth. Indeed, the renowned French chemist, Bertholet produced a hydrocarbon oil artificially by the action of acids on steel - which contains iron carbides.

In previous times, the matter would have been a mere scientific curiosity, but as conventional supplies of oil are believed to be about to peak and then run into short supply - the "Oil Dearth Era" - the prospect that more oil will be continually produced by the Earth itself, is very exciting and possibly reassuring. Perhaps Nature might snatch us from the jaws of a hungry energy crunch. However, it is the rate of recovery of oil that will decide this, and for example, if oil cannot be recovered at a rate equivalent to 30 billion barrels a year, as humanity uses presently, even if the abiotic theory is true, the facts of it will not be able to save us from the encroaching gap between supply and demand for oil. Future generations might be "blessed" as we were with a cornucopia of oil, but our own salvation and that of more immediate generations will depend on finding alternative ways to live which use far less oil.

Hydrocarbons may be classified as "energy minima", meaning they are stable molecules which might result from different kinds of processes - both biotic and abiotic. Thomas Gold thought that bacteria present at depths of down to ca 8 km could feed on hydrocarbons emanating from greater depth. He also proposed that natural gas and indeed coal, were created continually within the earth by intrinsic geochemical processes. I have heard that the Russians are sufficiently confident about the abiotic theory that they are undertaking deep-drilling projects to access petroleum that is present at depths of more than 3 km, and it is said that they are thus able to recover substantial quantities of the material in this way. If an alternative source of petroleum can be recovered in this way, and rapidly enough, both the event of peak oil might be staved-off, and considerable power placed in the hands of whoever can access it.


Related Reading.
[1] "Discovery backs theory oil not 'fossil fuel'. http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=59991
[2] "Titan's Mysterious Methane Comes from Inside, Not the Surface." http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=18410
[3] "New tests could further undermine 'fossil fuels'. http://royaldutchshellplc.com/2008/02/04/
worldnetdailycom-new-tests-could-further-undermine-fossil-fuels/
[4] "Results show fossil fuels are generated in ocean floor." http://appalachianforums.com/dcdb.pl?noframes;page=4;read=149000
[5] "New data: Maybe oil isn't from dead dinos." http://www.worldnetdaily.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=56480

42 comments:

sustain_ability said...

How I Learned To Survive Peak Oil

http://www.altenergystocks.com/ (alternative energy (AE) capitalism)

is a North American focussed site dedicated to proposing viable, comprehensive solutions using off-the-shelf technologies.

Other sites include:
http://ergobalance.blogspot.com/ (European perspective by a consultant based in the U.K.)
http://saltwatermatt.stumbleupon.com/ (Australia-based omnibus site, a bit left wing)
http://tresenglish.stumbleupon.com/ (both national and local (Teaching & Helping project) based in Arizona, USA)
http://bs1999bs.stumbleupon.com/ (excellent AE links, also has environmental focus: warning - disturbing images!)
http://peaknik.blogspot.com (omnibus site with innumerable links, USA)
http://www.cleantechblog.com ("the premier cleantech site for commentary on technologies, news, and issues relating to next generation energy and the environment.")
http://www.energybulletin.net (much more than "a clearinghouse for information regarding the peak in global energy supply")

Please add your favourite sites.
Sustain

Anonymous said...

most of the hydrocarbon is found around river delta.
especially ancient one. That is why ganges river delta has very little hydrocarbon because India only collided with Asia 60 million years ago. So either it is geology of river delta that is crucial or sediment along with bio matter that is crucial along with long long time.

Also, Most of the Coal in the world is buried swamp land. but the crucial fact is that at the time bio matter got buried that bacteria had not learned to consume plant material.

Alastair said...

And of course we need to bear in mind that we cannot eat oil. The human population (powered by wood, then coal, then oil energy) is stripping the planet of its biological life-support systems. Maybe we can find a way to repair eco-systems (500-100 years from now?) but at present rates we'll have killed the planet's ability to support us in decades. Peak oil could be a blessing in collapsing human power over eco-systems, if it happens quickly enough.

energybalance said...

Some nice comments here - thanks!

Sustain, I will add a link to "Peaknik". I've read her site and it's very good!

Interesting the point about the origin of oil and indeed coal. Thomas Gold's idea was that bacteria consumed hydrocarbons from the deep Earth rather than plant material. It is an interesting theory but as I say, even if there are vast amounts of abiotic petroleum, if we can't recover it fast enough it doesn't get us out of the energy hole we are headed for when conventional supplies of oil begin to wane.

I agree that we will necessarily cut our carbon emissions and stop destroying the ecosystems of the world in the "Oil Dearth Era", but it is the transition from the present time of oil-plenty to then that bothers me. If it is not managed in a deliberate programme by cooperating governments of the world's nations, we are headed for some pretty nasty times. Perhaps things have to get a lot worse - rising prices, job losses and the start of an economic collapse, money lenders calling in their debts from people who can't afford to pay them back etc. - before serious action is taken.

I find the prospect quite depressing.

Chris.

Anonymous said...

Your post is remarkable for being open minded on the possibility that oil is not 'organic detritus,' but, rather, a natural chemical process, resulting from the ultra high pressure and high temperature of the Earth's mantel, analogous to the conditions which produce diamonds.

As to anon8:37PM, oil is found below river deltas, true. As this forms the sedimentary geologic formation that traps rising oil, but oil is found other places, too.

A more indicative geologic formation for the presence of oil and gas is fractured basement basalt (bedrock) with sedimentary and cap formations above, which trap the oil and gas. Two specific places that have those conditions are the arc that runs through Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Gulf of Mexico.

In more general terms, most large oil fields are located along geologic fault lines, edges of tectonic plates, and where plates collide, or, as in the case of Indonesia, along the ring of fire, volcanic arc. If abiotic oil is true, the idea is that oil rises through the fissures and cracks, then is trapped in the sedimentary rock formations.

Peat is obviously organic and lignite (brown coal), which forms from peat, also is organic. But anthracite (black coal), deep mine coal, and bitumous coal are likely abiotic.

Anthracite and bitumous coals have alkane series (series of increasing length hydrogen-carbon molecules, more below), but at much lower levels than oil, indicating it could not have formed near the surface (as a swamp senario would require). So, as the substance rises to the surface volitile hydro-carbons evaporate leaving long chain hydro-carbons and simple carbon graphite. Try researching the molecular makeup of coal (it's not as easy, as you might think).

You do propose an interesting idea: Bacteria had not evolved as yet to consume organic detritus. I have not heard of that idea, so far, in my own internet research for scientific evidence on abiotic oil vs. fossil fuel theory.

Fossil fuel theory was first promulgated in 1757, the dark ages of science. In the scientific research done in Russia in the last 50 years, they determined that because of the second law of thermodynamics (increasing entropy) the relative low pressure and low temperature of sedimentary deposits was not able to convert organic detritus to petroleum.

Organic detritus is a low stored potential energy molecule. Petroleum is a high stored potential energy molecule.

The sedimentary/organic model does not provide the energy to convert organic detritus to the higher stored energy molecule, petroleum. Neither have fossil fuel theory proponents ben able to demonstrate how this would happen in a mathematical model or experiment.

In the last 7 or 8 years, the inability to convert organic detritus to petroleum was validated through more precise mathematical models conforming to the laws of chemistry and physics because that would violate the second law of thermodynamics.

In addition, an experiment was carried out that replicated the ultra high temperatures and pressures consistent with the Earth's mantel. In this controlled environment was placed marble, ironoxide and water, which produced the alkane suite, the hydrogen-carbon series, methane, ethane, propane, butane, pentane, and hexane (these are the building blocks of petroleum).

While methane can be formed at low temperature and pressure, all the higher molecules in the hydrogen-carbon suite can't be created at low pressure and temperature.

A good site to google is J.F. Kenney, Gas Resouces Corp. Houston, TX. Dr. Kenney did the experiment and has a series of papers that explain the Russian theories. It is persuasive, if slightly on the technical and dry scientific side, but still worth the read.

I found your post, here, because I was researching deep drilling, and saw your China post on their deep drilling projects.

Deep drilling is another piece of evidence in favor of abiotic oil. Oil geologists said not too long ago, that there was an "oil window" in which oil was formed, this window was no deeper than 18,000 feet deep. Any deeper and oil would break up into methane because of the heat. Now they are drilling down to 23,000 feet, below the bottom of the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico and finding light sweet crude (Cheveron even talks about it on their T.V. commercials, "Human Energy" is the tag line).

There is a lot of evidence supporting abiotic oil theory. Even more than "fossil" fuel theory in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Google Oil is Mastery. This is a blog on abiotic oil. It's focus in on deep-drilled oil wells.

Deep-drilled oil wells being a strong indicator of abiotic oil theory, and one where the oil industry is investing billions of Dollars.

Deep-drilled oil wells are incompatible with "fossil" fuel theory (beyond oil window and beyond deepest fossils).

There are good links to various articles and news releases and scientific papers.

energybalance said...

Thanks "anonymous", I will put a link to your site: oilismastery.blogspot.com/

I believe there may be different sources for petroleum but the practical consideration is, surely, not how much there is "per se", but the rate at which it can be recovered to match the 30 billion barrel annual consumption by the world...and rising.

So, maybe it is extraction that requires technological expansion (if there is as you say, vast amounts of oil deep down), rather than finding alternatives to oil?

Chris Rhodes.

Anonymous said...

Alexander said...."And of course we need to bear in mind that we cannot eat oil."
I seem to recall that in the 1970's BP operated a plant in Holland which produced a form of edible soy from crude. What happened to this project?
Peter Melia

energybalance said...

I seem to remember that too, Peter, but it quietly slipped away as far as I can tell.

However, here is the process in reverse: i.e. using soy to replace products made from oil!

http://www.beyondthebeanonline.com/
Article.aspx?id=57

A nice twist in emphasis, don't you think?!

Chris.

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