Geology And Geophysics

Where Oil comes from

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"Where Oil comes from"
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The jury is still out for most readers on the true natural origins of oil in our own planet's crust but there is supporting evidence that oil is continuing to be produced through the digestion of portions of the ferrite substrata by a kind of anaerobic bacterial fungal mold which produces oil and methane as the waste by-product in a process that has been ongoing in this planet's geological history since before the atmosphere contained oxygen. These lifeforms are called methanogens, previously known as the archaea and which were once categorized with the prokaryotes which include bacteria. Now they have been given their very own classification.

This is not news, actually. October, 2007 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the discovery that led to the reclassification of these 'non-bacteria' by microbiologist Carl Woese at the University of Illinois based on his analysis of ribosomal RNA. He discovered that the evolution of other prokaryotes and eukaryotes shared common features not found in the methanogens, which in parts were very different, apparently evolving according to a different subset of rules. This lends some credence to the idea that they arrived here from elsewhere, and that they do not have their origins on this Earth.

As space-based early life forms they probably arrived by precipitating from the trails left behind by comets, or from massive dust clouds wherein they were confined and which drifted through this solar system depositing the methanogens on all the worlds and their moons, wherein they might have continued evolving and producing oil and methane gases in those worlds which have a high ferrite concentration in their crust. There might very well be oil in Mars.

The idea seems not so far-fetched. It turns out that the methanoarchaea are neither bacterial nor fungal, but in a class all by themselves. They are certainly prehistoric, predating oxygen-dependent life.

Unusual methanogens have been isolated from oil-producing wells. In an article found on The Journal of the Society for General Microbiology web site the authors state that "Methanocalculus halotolerans might be indigenous to the oilfield ecosystem". Other studies show that "a mixed group of microorganisms is more effective at biodegrading organic compounds than any of the component strains acting alone". Thus far it has been established with some certainty that a "microbial consortium" converts oil, oil bearing shale and coal into methane. The discovery of life in deep oil wells is fairly recent. It was previously thought that life could not exist in that environment. It was also discovered that introducing oxygen into that environment suppresses methane production.

The atmosphere of the moon called Titan, around the planet Saturn, is 98.4% nitrogen and 1.6% of mostly methane with trace amounts of other gases. Titan's atmosphere is orange-red in color, thought to be caused by the presence of tholins which are composed of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Tholin is the term given to the heteropolymers produced by the action of the ultra-violet irradiation of simple organic molecules like methane and ethane - a process called copolymerization. A heteropolymer is a polymer constructed of more than one type of these simple molecules, as opposed to a homopolymer. The word tholin is derived from the Greek word for muddy. A tholin molecule is small enough to linger in an atmosphere and is therefore considered to be an organic aerosol. It has a reddish brown appearance. Carl Sagan first coined the word tholin in 1979 to describe the organic molecules of a prebiotic Earth. Spectrometer readings by astronomical observatories such as the Hubble space telescope has revealed the presence of tholins in great abundance in the solar systems of stars hundreds of light years away. The presence of Oxygen in Earth's atmosphere predisposes the presence of tholins in it here as they would oxidize rapidly on formation.

The NASA-JPL Cassini mission has mapped about 20% of the surface of Titan and this has revealed the presence of hundreds of liquid hydro-carbon lakes, any one of which may contain as much potential energy as all the fossil fuel reserves on Earth. Methane is liquid at the -178 C temperature at Titan's surface. The dunes on Titan are thought to be comprised of tholins which precipitate along with the liquid methane, which occurs as a part of the cycle of condensation of lake methane forming clouds which rain down on the surface after cooling in the atmosphere. In addition to the nitrogen and methane that are present in the upper atmosphere of Titan Cassini has also discovered benzyne, which is a key nucleus in some of the aromatic hydrocarbons, and large positive and negative ions. These ions along with ultraviolet radiation play a catalytic role in the formation of tholins in Titan's upper atmosphere, or ionosphere.

It is probable that conditions on Titan are very similar to those of a very early Earth atmosphere. Tholins can provide the sole source of carbon for many varieties of soil bacteria and for this reason their presence is thought to be the precursor to life. Tholins won't break down in the methane lakes found on Titan. However, they will dissolve in the presence of water or ammonia. Dissolving tholins in water yields ammonia. This means that there is a slim chance that there are amino acids in Titan's water ice or presumed subterranean liquid ocean. If there is ammonia (NH3) it would act as anti-freeze and it might be keeping water liquid for up to a thousand years in spite of the low temperature. Oxygen would be released slowly in water flows and abruptly during volcanic eruptions which melt the water ice. This means that periodically there might be all the ingredients necessary for the emergence of some form of life on Titan.

Oil in Mars? Life on Titan? Believe it or not, these are not outrageous possibilities. What seems more outrageous now is the notion that all the oil in our planet got there from decaying organic matter. It looks to be more probable that the oil was already in the Earth long before the life emerged upon it.

More about this author: Steve Lussing

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