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Abiotic Oil and Energy Red Herrings

According to a new computer model, liquid methane in contact with a partially hydrogen-terminated diamond surface at extremely high pressures and temperatures spontaneously forms longer hydrocarbons, and hence the material of crude oil could be formed deep in the earth. Geologists, certainly in the West, believe that 99% or more of the hydrocarbons present in crude oil and natural gas originate from the "cooking" over millennia of the dead remains of living organisms (biotic), buried under layers of sediments 5-10 miles deep in the Earth's crust. However, the abiotic theory of petroleum generation found force in Russia and Ukraine, proposed by such greats as Dmitri Mendeleev (who devised the Periodic Table the classifies the chemical elements), Alexander von Humboldt and Marcellin Berthelot.

The authors of the present study (http://www.pnas.org/content/108/17/6843.full.pdf+html) do not claim to have proved a case for abiotic oil, but they note that hydrocarbons could be formed by purely mineral means in particular geological environments such as rifts and subduction zones where the temperatures and pressures are "right", i.e. 1,500 K and 50,000 times the pressure at the surface of the Earth. The calculations indicate that the formation of longer chain hydrocarbons can happen in pure methane but the process is accelerated when the methane molecules are in contact with metal or carbon surfaces, e.g. diamond which act as catalysts for the methane-polymerisation to occur.

Fascinating of course, and undoubtedly these results will be taken in some quarters to mean that we will never run out of oil, Peak Oil being bunkum. But even if there were proven to be vast underground lakes of hydrocarbons, if we cannot recover them fast enough to begin matching the current 30 billion barrels/year of contemporary use and rising, it makes no difference. We should not be thrown any red-herrings that we need not press-on toward a future that is far less dependent on oil, and indeed a better planned use of energy in all its forms.

By. Professor Chris Rhodes

Professor Chris Rhodes is a writer and researcher. He studied chemistry at Sussex University, earning both a B.Sc and a Doctoral degree (D.Phil.); rising to become the youngest professor of physical chemistry in the U.K. at the age of 34.
A prolific author, Chris has published more than 400 research and popular science articles (some in national newspapers: The Independent and The Daily Telegraph)
He has recently published his first novel, "University Shambles" was published in April 2009 (Melrose Books).

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  • Anonymous on May 04 2011 said:
    Natural hydrocarbons are, of course, primordial materials that were incorpored into Earth during planetary accretion process. As said Sir Fred Hoyle:"The suggestion that petroleum might have arisen from some transformation of squashed fish or biological detritus is surely the silliest notion to have been entertained by substantial numbers of persons over an extended period of time."

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