In another blow to the theory that petroleum is a fossil fuel, a new study reveals evidence that oil is created abiotically by geological processes.
The abiogenic petroleum theory
During the 16th Century, Russian Georg Agricola developed the theory of abiogenic petroleum. Later, other theories that supported the abiogenic hypothesis explaining the origin of oil were popularized by such luminaries as Alexander von Humboldt, the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev and eminent French chemist, Marcellin Berthelot.
After deep exploratory drilling struck oil where no fossilized oil should have existed, Russian and Ukrainian geologists resurrected the theory of abiogenic oil to account for its presence. Their work was carried forward by researcher Thomas Gold in the latter half of the 20th century.
If the theory of abiogenic petroleum is true it means that the geological processes of the Earth itself produce oil and that the resource is virtually limitless and no oil shortage can exist—the world will never be able to run out of oil.
Believers in the abiogenic theory think oil is formed from carbon deposits deep in the mantle of the Earth. That oil seeps up into the crust where oil drillers can reach it.
Early oil drillers often found petroleum near coal deposits and believed, like coal, that oil was a by-product of fossil carbonation processes, pressure and exposure to heat.
Those that argue against oil as a fossil fuel point to examples of hydrocarbons produced non-biologically on the planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, also has an atmosphere of methane and rivers and oceans of liquid methane.
The debate has raged for decades and the advocates for petroleum as a finite, fossil fuel have always fallen back on the argument that no formal study ever lent credence to the abiogenic origin hypothesis.
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) study
Scientists at LLNL decided to test the feasibility of abiogenic oil by simulating the conditions of the Earth deep underground. They wanted to see what the heat and pressure would do to hydrogen and carbon atoms buried 40 to 95 miles down.
According to a news release, the LLNL team that conducted the study included reseachers at UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Shell Projects & Technology.
"One of the researchers, UC Davis Professor Giulia Galli, is the co-chair of the Deep Carbon Observatory's Physics and Chemistry of Deep Carbon Directorate and former LLNL researcher," writes Anne M Stark of LLNL.
Although most geologists believe that 99 percent of the Earth's hydrocarbons in oil and natural gas are created by the remains of ancient animals and plants subjected to great pressure and heat, producing wells that have struck oil at great depths in Russia shed doubt on that theory.
Until a decade or so ago virtually all oil discovered was in the range of 5-10 miles into the crust. Yet recently, the Russians have discovered major oil pockets as far down as 40 miles.
That amazing depth is far deeper than any prehistoric remains of animals and plants would ever be found.
Using a supercomputer, the team recreated the conditions deep under the surface of the Earth and discovered that when subjected to a pressure of 50,000 times greater than the surface atmospheric pressure and heat higher than 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit a fusion process occurs.
At 70 miles down they found that methane molecules can fuse with hydrocarbons and produce petroleum.
"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," Galli said. "We don't say that higher hydrocarbons actually occur under the realistic 'dirty' Earth mantle conditions, but we say that the pressures and temperatures alone are right for it to happen."