Even today, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy continues to teach children that natural gas is a “fossil fuel.” In a cute set of drawings, the EIA website shows how creatures swimming in the ocean millions of years ago died and decayed, only to be covered by mud and soil, ultimately to cook into natural gas.
As charming as this EIA story is, scientists are today demonstrating that it may not be true. Credible scientists have now demonstrated that methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, can form inorganically, as a result of natural processes that involve no biological material whatsoever — no dead dinosaurs, no rotting ancient forests, not even any little plankton trapped in the soil. These recent scientific findings are important because they support a contending scientific paradigm that argues for the origin of oil and natural gas from completely abiotic processes that occur deep within the earth.
In 2004, Henry Scott of Indiana University in South Bend, together with scientific colleagues from Harvard University, the Carnegie Institute in Washington, and the Livermore National Lab conducted a diamond anvil experiment in which they synthesized methane in a laboratory. The research team included such luminaries as Dudley Herschbach, a Harvard University research professor of science who received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1986.
The research team decided to squeeze together iron oxide, calcium carbonate, and water at temperatures as hot as 500 degrees Celsius and under pressures as high as 11 gigapascals (one gigapascal is equivalent to the pressure of 10,000 atmospheres). Simply put, the scientists were trying to see if iron oxide, calcium carbonate, and water would produce methane if they were combined under pressures and temperatures comparable to those experienced in the earth’s upper mantle.
The basic idea was to smash the iron oxide, calcite, and water together at the types of temperatures and pressures we would expect to see deep within the earth and stand back to see what happened. The diamond mechanism provided a reliable way to take the end product and submit it to spectrographic analysis so its chemical content could be analyzed accurately. The goal was to prove that a hydrocarbon of the petroleum family could be produced via simple inorganic reactions involving no biological agents whatsoever.
Remarkably, the experiment worked. Laurence Fried of Livermore Laboratory’s Chemistry and Minerals Science Directorate summed up the importance of these findings as follows:
The results demonstrate that methane readily forms by the reaction of marble with iron-rich minerals and water under conditions typical in Earth’s upper mantle. This suggests there may be untapped methane reserves well below Earth’s surface. Our calculations show that methane is thermodynamically stable under conditions typical of Earth’s mantle, indicating that such reserves could potentially exist for millions of years.
Dr. Fried continued:
At temperatures above 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, we found that the carbon in calcite formed carbon dioxide rather than methane. This implies that methane in the interior of Earth might exist at depths between 100 and 200 kilometers. This has broad implications for the hydrocarbon reserves of our planet and could indicate that methane is more prevalent in the mantle than previously thought. Due to the vast size of Earth’s mantle, hydrocarbon reserves in the mantle could be much larger than reserves currently found in Earth’s crust.
Then, in December 2005, NASA scientists published conclusive studies that abundant methane of a non-biologic nature is found on Saturn’s giant moon Titan.
Announcing the discovery the month before, NASA mad clear that the methane found on Titan was completely inorganic. “We have determined that Titan’s methane is not of biologic origin,” reported Hasso Niemann of the Goddard Space Flight Center, a principal NASA investigator responsible for the Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer aboard the Cassini-Huygens probe that landed on Titan on January 14, 2005, “so it must be replenished by geologic processes on Titan, perhaps venting from a supply in the interior that could have been trapped there as the moon formed.”
This announcement was further proof that natural gas does not require any biological products to form. Of course, NASA’s alternative, after discovering that Titan contained methane, was to argue that at some point there were dinosaurs on Titan, or ancient forests, or possibly even plankton of some kind. As far as the scientists know, no sign of biological life has been found to have ever lived on Titan. Yet, there is abundant methane.
Today, the U.S. Department of Energy is sponsoring a “Deep Trek” project designed to recover abundant resources of natural gas within the continental United States at depths down 3 miles or farther below the surface of the earth. Current technology permits commercial recover of deep earth natural gas deposits. Still, scientific paradigms die hard. The “Deep Trek” project is still listed under the “Fossil Energy” section of the Department of Energy’s website.
With President Bush looking around for energy alternatives, someone ought to explain to him that there is a solid scientific basis for concluding that natural gas can form from completely inorganic processes deep within the earth. These results suggest that the earth might just be forming natural gas on a continuous basis. Moreover, current exploration suggests that deep earth methane is so plentiful that we will have to wait a long time to run out, even if we switch an increasing proportion of our energy applications away from oil and toward natural gas.
One final thought: if natural gas is an abiotic, deep-earth product, maybe petroleum is too. That probably helps explain why the Russians and the Vietnamese are today discovering oil in volcanic bedrock structures off the coast of Vietnam. Our “fossil fuel” geologists have typically stopped looking once they drilled into bedrock.