A research team including colleagues at UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Shell Projects & Technology is offering a new computational study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals how hydrocarbons may be formed from methane deep in the Earth at extreme pressures and temperatures.

Hydrocarbon Formation Simulation. Click image for more info.

The research is important for understanding hydrocarbon reservoirs and fluxes within Earth’s crust.  Knowledge about the thermodynamic and kinetic properties of hydrocarbons at high pressures and temperatures will assist in discovering more naturally occurring petroleum resources.  This new work provides a basis for understanding the experiments that demonstrated polymerization of methane to form larger hydrocarbon molecules such as propane and crude oil and earlier methane forming reactions occurring under pressure.

Part of the research begins with the assumption that methane, the simplest petroleum hydrocarbon, is present.  Biology is quite good at producing methane in prodigious amounts.  Accumulating over time, the question of how larger petroleum molecules formed might be in part answered now.

Petroleum is a hydrocarbon, molecules composed of the elements hydrogen and carbon that are the main building block of crude oil and natural gas. Hydrocarbons contribute to the global carbon cycle, one of the most important cycles of the Earth that allows for carbon to be recycled and reused throughout the biosphere and all of its organisms over time.

Today the vast majority of geologists and geochemists believe that nearly all, more than 99 percent, of the hydrocarbons in commercially produced crude oil and natural gas are formed by the decomposition of the remains of living organisms, which were buried under layers of sediments in the Earth’s crust, in a region approximately 5-10 miles below the Earth’s surface.

The question for the experiments, explains UC Davis Professor Giulia Galli, a senior author on the study, center on if the formation of hydrocarbon molecules purely from a chemical deep crustal or mantle origin (known as abiogenic or non biological formed) could occur in some geologic settings, such as rifts or subduction zones.

Galli says, “Our simulation study shows that methane molecules fuse to form larger hydrocarbon molecules when exposed to the very high temperatures and pressures of the Earth’s upper mantle. We don’t say that higher hydrocarbons actually occur under the realistic ‘dirty’ Earth mantle conditions, but we say that the pressures and temperatures alone are right for it to happen.”

Galli and colleagues used the Mako computer cluster in Berkeley and computers at Lawrence Livermore to simulate the behavior of carbon and hydrogen atoms at the enormous pressures and temperatures found 40 to 95 miles deep inside the Earth. They used sophisticated techniques based on first principles and the computer software system Qbox, developed at UC Davis and LLNL.

The team found that hydrocarbons with multiple carbon atoms could form from the methane molecule with only one carbon and four hydrogen atoms.  This needs temperatures greater than 1,500º K (2,240º F) and pressures 50,000 times those at the Earth’s surface; conditions found about 70 miles below the surface.

Leonardo Spanu of UC Davis, first author of the paper says, “In the simulation, interactions with metal or carbon surfaces allowed the process to occur faster — they act as ‘catalysts’. ”

The research does not address whether hydrocarbons formed deep in the Earth could migrate closer to the surface and contribute to oil or gas deposits. However, the study points to possible microscopic mechanisms of hydrocarbon formation under very high temperatures and pressures.

The debate between biological sources for the hydrogen and carbon used in petroleum formation and the abiogenic theory will continue.  Subduction to 40, 70 and 95 miles all seems a little pointless.  But the point is that finding the richest lodes of petroleum is a major goal for the world’s economy.  Knowing how to look for reservoirs that formed from abiogenic action is worth doing.

All that needs to happen is find just one – not feeding from sedimentary deposited biological sources.

The full team presenting the paper, Stability of Hydrocarbons at Deep Earth Pressures and Temperatures in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is made up of Galli, Spanu and Davide Donadio at the Max Planck Institute in Meinz, Germany; Detlef Hohl at Shell Global Solutions, Houston; and Eric Schwegler of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Shell made a funding contribution beyond the personal contribution of Mr. Hohl.

For many the research might seem to be a chase to nowhere.  But factually, knowing could have immense implications.  The reservoirs might not be conventional as in sedimentary rock.  The upward flow over millions of years may have been simply an atmospheric dump.  Perhaps some of the huge reserve of methane hydrates is a result of methane seepage into a near surface environment that simply stopped the methane from getting into the atmosphere.

There are lots of questions at this level, and the answers are going to present many more.  For decades to come methane and the larger petroleum molecules are going to be needed.  Better to ask now and have more ideas on how to progress and not get caught short.


12 Comments so far

  1. Musson on April 20, 2011 8:25 AM

    It’s long been accepted science in Russia that petroleum is formed in an abiological method deep within the earth’s crust. This would be Nature’s version of Fischer Tropsch.

  2. BFast on April 20, 2011 2:01 PM

    Oil is obsolete! See wikipedia entry, “energy catalyzer”, or http://www.nickelpower.org

    While there remains to be some intellectual interest in how oil is formed, the secondary gain of making oil easier to find is not likely to amount to anything.

  3. Musson on April 21, 2011 9:12 AM


    Sorry. But even if the Rossi catalyzer or the Ukrainian Zirconium catalyzer proves commercially feasible – it will take a significant battery breakthrough (the biggest in 100 years) to replace oil as a transportation fuel.

  4. BFast on April 21, 2011 12:18 PM

    Musson, please check out http://nickelpower.org/2011/04/18/return-of-the-steam-car/
    Rossi-powered cars are easily feasible. Rossi powered trucks, trains and airplanes are just as feasible. Oil, as energy, is obsolete!

  5. Tofik Khanmamedov on May 7, 2011 7:11 AM

    The Nature’s version of Fischer Tropsch was published in 1995 in the article “The origin of hydrocarbons and water. The role of hydrogen.” International Journal. Hydrogen Energy. http://www.tkkcompany.com/HYDROCARBONS_WATER_ORIGIN.pdf

    This theory explains all contradictions and most importantly – makes connection between hydrocarbons and water origin on the earth.

    This theory explains why hydrocarbons were generated in the earth and how. Explains why fossil theory should not be accepted, as a major source of oil and gas. Also, it asks questions such as – why there is no olefines in the oil? why there are so small amount of nitrogen and oxygen in the oil? If oil originated by destruction of polypeptides, then we should have lots of olefins, nitrogen and oxygen. Besides, there was not observed any significant optical activity in the oils due to biological origin. This theory explains impact of hydrogen in all processes of oil and water origin. Why hydrogen , where hydrogen and CO2 came from, why hydrogen had to react with CO2, why oil and gas mainly locate in the area close to equator, in the extremely cold regions etc.
    This theory can be used as the basis for calculation of oil and gas reserves.


  6. Fuel Distribution Software on December 15, 2011 7:00 AM

    I like your post and also your idea it’s hard to work on it but the is great!!!

  7. トリーバーチ バッグ on June 13, 2013 12:27 AM

    Fantastic goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you’re just
    extremely wonderful. I really like what you’ve acquired here, certainly like what you’re saying and the way in which you say
    it. You make it entertaining and you still care for to keep it smart.
    I cant wait to read far more from you. This is actually a great
    web site.

  8. iphone portable battery charger on June 18, 2013 12:47 PM

    Hello there! Quick question that’s totally off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My website looks weird when viewing from my iphone. I’m trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to correct this problem.

    If you have any suggestions, please share. Thanks and more thanks!

  9. profile.ultimate-guitar.com on July 15, 2013 1:54 AM

    I’m a student just learning more regarding this business along with I really enjoyed reading it. Keep up the nice job! Very much appreciated information!

  10. portable phone charger on July 15, 2013 8:24 PM

    Greetings from Los angeles! I’m bored to tears at work so I decided to browse your site on my iphone during lunch break. I enjoy the knowledge you present here and can’t wait to take a look when
    I get home. I’m surprised at how quick your blog loaded on my cell phone .. I’m not
    even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyhow, amazing blog! Thanks a

  11. エルメス バッグ キャラバン on December 12, 2013 12:19 PM

    These are in fact fantastic ideas in on the topic of blogging.

    You have touched some good things here. Any way keep up wrinting.

  12. win vps on January 10, 2014 11:04 PM

    I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of
    your post’s to be just what I’m looking for.
    Would you offer guest writers to write content
    to suit your needs? I wouldn’t mind composing a post or elaborating
    on many of the subjects you write with regards to here.
    Again, awesome weblog! Much appreciated!

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind