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Vast Oil and Life in the Deep earth

Two books speculate that oil is formed continually within the earth by geological processes and will not therefore run-out, in contrast to the opinion of peak-oil analysts who believe production will decline during the next couple of decades according to Hubbert Peak theory. It is thought that life at the level of bacteria exists in an enormous realm within the earth's crust down to depths of about 10 kilometers, feeding-off petroleum and using iron oxides as an oxidizing agent to extract energy from it.

Two books speculate (convincingly in my opinion) on the presence of a realm of bacterial life in the Earth's crust down to a depth of about 10 kilometers, that feed on oil which is also present there in massive quantities. It is proposed that Peak Oil is a myth, based on conventional wisdom in the West that petroleum (crude oil) is the product of effectively "cooking" plant and animal remains over millennia, when really it is produced all the time by geochemical processes within the deep-earth and upwells continually, percolating through the pores present in rocks to collect in deposits closer to the surface. Natural gas too is proposed to originate in vast volumes from such inner-planetary processes, and for example the existence of methane-hydrates in large areas of sediments under the oceans and on land, under permafrost it is suggested is a consequence of "capping" the gas in and under ice-layers.

The books are: "The Deep Hot Biosphere" by Thomas Gold (DHB) and "Jagged Environment" by Chris James (JE). DHB proposes very many convincing scientific arguments, supported by observations while JE expresses through its own conclusions an Earth-centred human philosophy. Both consider the origins of life, but take alternate viewpoints. DHB presumes "panspermia", that the essential seeds for life came to Earth from elsewhere in the universe, perhaps in the form of fully compiled bacteria, and having arrived, life then took-hold either in the surface or deep-earth regions, in the latter case feeding off geologically produced petroleum. In contrast, JE speculates that an interaction occurs between water and silicon carbides deep within the earth itself, thereby producing petroleum and silica grains of the micron size that is typical of many bacteria. By coating the grains with "oil" a semipermeable membrane was formed and "life" per se originated as levels of complexity were added. One interesting notion is that the effect of background radiation was to oxidise the primitive "oil-membranes", ironically forming antioxidants which extended their lifetimes against oxidation. Thus the stress of oxygen and radiation are seen as being essential to early cellular evolution.

In DHB, Gold describes a fascinating experiment he undertook in which a borehole was drilled-out in central Sweden, through crystalline bedrock down to a depth of 5 kilometers. 80 barrels of oil were recovered, but also significant quantities of a material called magnetite. Now magnetite is a reduced form of iron oxide (Fe3O4) compared to Fe2O3, the normal mineral form. [Put another way, in Fe3O4, twelve Fe atoms would need sixteen oxygen atoms to balance them, whereas in Fe2O3, twelve Fe atoms need an eighteen O atom counterweight]. Gold advances the theory that bacteria present at depth (The Deep Biosphere) use Fe2O3 to oxidise petroleum as a process from which to extract their energy, thus producing CO2, H2 + Fe3O4. Ingenious!

Gold also speculates that natural gas (methane), petroleum and coal represent materials formed by an increasing loss of hydrogen, and so coal, along with gas and oil, should be an inexhaustible resource since it too is created continually. He also speculates that earthquakes might, in some case, be due to upwellings of gas and thus occur even in regions well away from tectonic plate boundaries. He further cites examples where "barren" oil wells have spontaneously "refilled", he believes from depth, although I have spoken to experts in the oil industry who thought that this was merely due to near-surface oil of biological origin percolating through strata and into the empty space.

However, even if it is true, what does this mean in terms of peak oil (or peak gas or coal for that matter)? It might appear, as Gold says in DHB, that there is no need to worry about oil and gas supplies dwindling, and it is all a hoax. He even cites evidence that the great oil fields of Saudi may be refilling from elsewhere, he thinks from below. However, this only matters to the utterly pressing challenge of meeting our present and rising demand for oil if such wells refill (or more can be dug through deep boreholes, down below 5 kilometers, say), fast enough to draw-up oil at a matching rate. For the sake of argument, if the Saudi wells refill, but it takes 100 years to do so, this will not help us one iota in balancing the production shortfall in oil that is believed to begin within about 5 years. I also think that the deep-drilling projects might be hampered if the oil that is presently down there is matched in quantity by magnetite which will probably clog-up drills, pipes and so on.

Related Reading.
(1) "The Deep Hot Biosphere", by Thomas Gold, ISBN: 0-387-95253-5, Copernicus Books, 2001. (Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
(2) "Jagged Environment", by Chris James, ISBN: 0-954-00940-1, JEpublications, 2001. (Available from Amazon.co.uk but not Amazon.com... How strange?). Or from http://www.jaggedenvironment.com

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 September 16 2010 said:
    These oil guys are really getting desperate! Whatever the theories, the fact remains that even known and presently 'available' oil sources are becoming more difficult and more expensive to access, therefore of increasingkly marginal to non-existent profitability for the oil companies who have to sink how many holes before they find something economically viable? And at the rate of consumption, nothing short of a second Ghawar or Iraqi sized field will even begin to match the demand for more than one generation - IF we're lucky!So all these theories, fascinating though they are, have little bearing on present realities...

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