"Do these fuels result always and necessarily in one way from the decomposition of a pre-existing organic substance? Is it thus with the hydrocarbons so frequently observed in volcanic eruptions and emanations, and to which M. Ch. Sainte-Claire Deville has called attention in recent years? Finally, must one assign a parralel origin to carbonaceous matter and to hydrocarbons contained in certain meteorites, and which appear to have an origin foreign to our planet? These are questions on which the opinion of many distinguished geologists does not as yet appear to be fixed." -- Marcellin Berthelot, chemist, 1866
"One can, then, conceive the production, by purely mineral means, of all natural hydrocarbons. The intervention of heat, of water, and of alkaline metals -- lastly, the tendency of hydrocarbons to unite together to form the more condensed material -- suffice to account for the formation of these curious compounds. Moreover, this formation will be continuous because the reactions which started it are renewed incessantly." -- Marcellin Berthelot, chemist, 1866
"All giant oil fields are most logically explained by inorganic theory." -- Vladimir B. Porfir'yev, geologist, 1974
"I don't think anybody has ever doubted that there is an inorganic source of hydrocarbons." -- Michael D. Lewan, geologist, 2002
"Hydrocarbons can be re-defined as a 'renewable resource, rather than a finite one' (Gurney 1997)" -- Peter R. Odell, economist/geologist, 2004
"The ICP-MS method begin a new stage in oil inorganic geochemistry study." -- Kirill S. Ivanov, et al., geochemist, 2007
Amy Callaghan: Can oil form without organic matter? If you're reading this you probably know what the correct answer to that question is.
SYDNEY: New research reveals that the hydrocarbon elements of oil and gas may be able to form deep in the Earth's crust without the need for fossilised organic matter.
A team led by researchers at the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory, in Washington DC, have studied the chemical reactions of methane at high temperatures and pressures and under oxidising conditions. They say that this shows that – theoretically at least – oil can form deep in the Earth's crust without the need for decomposing plants or animal material.
Most of the crude oil and gas we use was formed hundreds of millions of years ago when vast forests decomposed under great heat and pressure below sediment in the Earth's crust.
20,000 times atmospheric pressure
But experts have also wondered if some of these hydrocarbons might form chemically in the upper mantle and are then transported through faults and fissures to shallower regions, contributing to petroleum reserves.
Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon and is abundant in the atmosphere. The new study, detailed in the journal Nature Geoscience used a diamond anvil cell (a device which puts samples under immense pressures) and a laser heat source, to subject methane to conditions which mimic those found deep inside the Earth.
Pressures there can exceed 20 thousand times that at sea level, while temperatures can exceed 1,200°C.
"We demonstrated the chemical transformation of methane to heavier saturated hydrocarbons such as ethane, butane and propane and its reversibility under the conditions of the upper Earth's mantle," said the Carnegie Institution's Alexander Goncharov.
The results suggest that heavier hydrocarbons than methane could exist deep down within the crust, he said, and this process may even have contributed to our oil and gas reserves today.
Although previous experiments have reported formation of heavier hydrocarbons from methane under high pressures and temperatures, according to Goncharov, the molecules could not be identified and the process was not proven. "We overcame this problem with our improved laser-heating technique where we could cook larger volumes more uniformly," he said.
Study co-author, Vladimir Kutcherov said this theory backs up research which suggests that hydrocarbons formed in this was seep up through deep faults in the Earth's crust, where they form larger deposits. "So, our planet may have enormous, inexhaustible resources of hydrocarbons," he said.