Friday, September 09, 2005

(***) The Deep Hot Biosphere by Thomas Gold

This book challenges the very - geologic - foundation of our fossil fuel based economy by questioning the mechanism and sources for oil and gas. Who was Thomas Gold? He was a former professor of physics at Cornell (he died in 2002) who has consisently challenged the establishment with his bold theories. The book very convincingly shatters the fossil fuel theory and builds a credible case for the abiogenic theory of oil and hydrocarbons. What does this mean to you? Well, for one thing it means that oil, gas, and coal are continuing to be formed at essentially the same rate as they have for millenia, and second, our oil reservoirs are actually filling up from underneath (this is no joke, evidence of such has been found!). We are therefore not going to run out of oil very soon, and there's more oil below that if we can figure out how to drill deeper. Don't write off the internal combustion engine just yet.

“About once every 5 years, he invades a new field of research and proposes an outrageous theory that arouses intense opposition from professional experts in the field. He then works very hard to prove the experts wrong. He does not always succeed… He was famously wrong when he promoted the steady-state universe in which matter is continuously created to keep the density constant as the universe expands… He was right about the theory that pulsars are rotating neutron stars. He was also right about the “90 degree flip of the axis of rotation of the earth… He proposed that earth’s axis might occasionally flip over through an angle of 90 degrees within a time on the order of a million years, so that the old north and south poles would move to the equator… Gold’s paper was ignored by the experts for more than 40 years… 1997 evidence that a 90 degree flip of the rotation axis actually occurred during a geologically short time in the early Cambrian era… Gold’s most controversial idea is the non-biologic origin of natural gas and oil [fossil fuels]… The biological molecules found in oil show that oil is contaminated by living creatures, not that oil was produced by [once and now dead] living creatures. Pp ix-xi

The biogenic [fossil fuel] theory holds that biological debris buried in sediments decays the in into oil and natural gas in the long course of time and that this petroleum then becomes concentrated in the pore spaces of sedimentary rocks in the uppermost layers of the crust… Where petroleum reservoirs were found in rocks possessing no materials that could have given rise to the oils, it was simply accepted that crude oil and natural gases often migrate vast distances and that source rocks may therefore sometimes be indeterminable. [In other words, the current fossil fuel theory doesn’t have a reasonable, proven explanation where the oil really comes from and how it got there.]… The discovery of molecules of clearly biological origin [because chirality] in all natural oils greatly strengthened the biogenic theory [because it claims these are remnants of the decayed biological debris].” P40 “The abiogenic theory holds that hydrocarbons were a component of the material that formed the earth, through the accretion of solids some 4.5 BYA. With increasing internal heat, liquids and gases were liberated, and because they were less dense than the rocks, buoyancy forces drove them upward. In favorable conditions, the upward journey would be dammed temporarily in porous rocks at depths that our drills can reach.” P41

The abiogenic theory of petroleum formation depends on the truth of 5 underlying assumptions. 1st, hydrocarbons must have been a common constituent of the primordial materials out which the earth was formed. 2nd, in 4.5 BY since the earth accreted, the primordial hydrocarbons must not subsequently have become dissociated and fully oxidized to carbon dioxide and water by exposure to significant amounts of oxygen bound in the rocks of the earth’s crust. 3rd, hydrocarbons must be chemically stable at the combinations of high temperature and pressure w/in the earth. 4th, hydrocarbon fluids must have found or created suitable pores in which to exist at depth and through which to travel in their journey upward. 5th a source of hydrocarbons must still exist at depth. P43

1. Are Hydrocarbons primordial?
“Carbon is the 4th most abundant element in the universe and also in our solar system after hydrogen, helium and oxygen. Among planetary bodies [earth included], carbon is found mostly in compounds w/hydrogen – hydrocarbons – which at different temperatures and pressures, may be gaseous [methane – natural gas], liquid [oil], solid [coal]… It is therefore clear that the occurrence of hydrocarbon molecules within the earth is in no way an anomaly.

2. Was the earth subjected to a partial melt allowing some of these primordial hydrocarbons to be preserved?
Until the middle of the 20th century it was thought that the earth had formed as a hot body, that it had been a ball of liquid rock – and that it had then gradually cooled, providing a differentiated crust over a homogeneous mantle. In such an evolutionary history, no primordial hydrocarbons could have survived the molten state [without oxidation or reduction]… It has become quite clear now that our planet, as well as other inner planets and satellites of the outer planets, all accreted as solid bodies from solids that had condensed from a gaseous planetary disk… In the early earth, partial melting did take place, causing melts of lower density to make their way to the surface [forming the crust] while melts of higher density sank down toward the center [forming the core]…

3. Are Hydrocarbons stable at great depth?
It used be thought that above 600 degrees C would dissociate even the simplest and most heat resistant hydrocarbon – methane, and that temps as low as 300C were sufficient to destroy most of the heavy hydrocarbon components of petroleum. Because such temps are reached at depths of only a few 10s of KMs in the crust, it seemed pointless to discuss an origin of hydrocarbons from sources at deeper levels… This conventional view reigned unchallenged simply because of the cost of conducting experiments at the appropriate pressures [yes the temp is very high 200 km below the surface, but so is the pressure!]… High pressure greatly stabilizes hydrocarbons against thermal dissociation. [New experiments have confirmed this hypothesis.] Methane is the most stable molecule of the hydrocarbons; most of it would survive at all levels down to 300km, provided the temp there did not exceed 2000C.


4. Does rock at depth contains pores to hold these hydrocarbons?
“Do pore spaces in fact exist those realms [deep underground] to accommodate [hydrocarbons], and do mechanisms exist to facilitate their flow? … [Conventional theory states] the weight of the overburden would be so great that even the strongest rocks would be crushed to a degree that all pore spaces would be eliminated; no fluids could be contained there, and no movement of any fluids through all the deeper rocks would be possible… This is about as silly a [notion] as the question of a schoolboy who first learns about atmospheric pressure and asks why he is not squashed as flat as a pancake if there is a pressure of 14.7lbs per sqin on his body [your body with its pores – think of all the places where you have holes full of air and water is all at equal pressure with the atmosphere. It’s also as silly as asking why the fish in the ocean are crushed even 20,000ft below the surface. Water and other fluids can withstand immense pressures.]

5. Are hydrocarbons still upwelling?
See items 2, 4 & 5 below for details.

There are 7 empirical types of evidence collected from our geological investigations that back up the abiogenic theory, and that challenge the fossil fuel hypothesis:

1. Reservoirs of petroleum are frequently found in geographical patterns of long lines or arcs extending for 100s or even 1000s of KMs. The island arc of Indonesia is perhaps the best example. These [large] linear patterns related more to deep seated and large-scale structural features of the crust than to the smaller scale patchwork of the sedimentary deposits [needed for fossil fuels genesis].
2. Hydrocarbon rich areas tend to be hydrocarbon rich at all lower levels, corresponding to quite different geological epochs, and extending down to the crystalline basement… Invasion of an area by hydrocarbon fluids from below could better account for the vertical reach of hydrocarbons than does the chance of successive deposition of hydrocarbon producing biological sediments in epochs that differ by 10s of millions of years and that show no similarities of climate, vegetation, or other relevant characteristics.
3. Methane is found in many locations where a biogenic explanation for its presence is improbable… These locations include ocean rifts, which lack any substantial sediments.
4. Hydrocarbon deposits of a large area often show common chemical features regardless of the varied composition or the geological ages of the formations in which they are found.
5. A number of hydrocarbon reservoirs seem to be refilling as they are exploited for commercial purposes… I don’t think the biogenic theory could – at least, I have not heard of any prediction of the refilling phenomenon. [Read that again! We are not going to run out of oil anytime soon if this turns out to be true. Yes, it might be a bit deeper than that what we have already found, but what Gold is saying is that we are merely scratching the surface – literally.]
6. The distribution of the large amounts of carbonate rock in the upper crust and the isotopic composition of the carbon atoms argue against the theory of biological origin.
7. A well-established association of hydrocarbons with the chemically inert gaseous element of helium have no explanation in the theories of a biological origin. But these associations are explained if the hydrocarbons have ascended from great depth [along with the helium as well].

Well what about those fossils we find in our fuels then? This is the so-called smoking gun that everyone points to as a biological origin for the hydrocarbons. Let’s examine that according to Gold.

“First, all natural petroleum contains admixtures of groups of molecules that are clearly identified as the breakdown products of complex, but common, organic molecules synthesized by life… Second, petroleum frequently exhibits an optical property suggestive of biological activity…Rather one hand dominates [from a polarization standpoint] which is characteristic of biological liquids [rather than being] represented by statistically equal numbers.”

Gold posits that these are indeed biological markers after all. But they are not created from ancient fossil life, but are instead the fodder for life that still exists underground. “Rather they are evidence of a thriving community of microbes living out their lives at depth, feasting on hydrocarbons of a deep abiogenic origin… Indisputable evidence of living indigenous microbes [bacteria] has been reported in oil wells at depths of more than 4KM. I believe that all the depths to which our drills can reach are shallower than the transition level below which biology can’t operate. Hence all hydrocarbons will show this type of biological enhancement.”

Yeah, but are there really enough bacteria underground to really infect and be present in all hydrocarbons? Some have argued by investigating the presence of special biological markers based upon carbon formations [called hopanoids] that “The global [subsurface] stock of hopanoids alone would be at least 10 to 100 times more than the estimated tons of organic carbon in all living surface organisms.” Here’s another calculation by Gold on the size of the biomass below our feet: “Let us begin with a presumed upper temperature for 150C (which at pressure would be below the boiling point of water). This would place a depth limit of 5 to 10km… The total pore space being only 3% of the available volume in the earth to depth of 5km yields 2x10^22 cc. If material of a density of water fills these pore spaces. This would represent a mass of 2x10^16 tons. If only 1% of this mass was bacteria, it would be the equivalent of to a layer of living material that would be approximately 5 feet thick if it were spread out over all of the land surface.” So yes, there’s a lot life below us.

But what about the literal fossils found in coal? Things like leaves, and tree stems and trunks? Isn’t that clear evidence of a fossil origin? No, that is guilt by association, and it doesn’t discuss the mechanism by which the fossil became entombed and preserved within the coal. “It is not uncommon to find lumps of carbonate rock within a coal seam and upon breaking them open, to find fossils containing wood – not black, but light in color – and showing no signs of turning into coal. Similarly, fossilized tree trunks that span through the coal seam from the carbonate rock below to that above. Those fossils are coalified where they are within the coal seam, and are not coalified where they are in the carbonate.” Gold hypothesizes that the fossils don’t create the coal, they are simply embedded with in the rocks that trap the upwelling hydrocarbon that becomes the coal.

Gold further challenges the fossil origin for coal and oil by pointing out a flaw in that theory that can be explained abiogenically. “It is assumed that oil and coal are the result of completely different circumstances. This is because proponents of the biogenic theory regard coal as the altered remains of plants and oil as the altered remains of marine debris, yet it would seem improbable for nearly the same biological material to be found in both. If coal was an end product of oil [the leftovers from the bacteria’s diet], then this coincidence would be explained.”

OK. I’m starting to be convinced. But how exactly does this new oil keep coming up, and why isn’t this so obvious? “I believe that substantial coal formation is not just a thing of past. It is happening today. We don’t recognize it simply because coal is forming largely as incremental additions to existing coal deposits. Not only the oil and gas fields are recharging [by upwelling] but the coal deposits also, only at a rate too slow for us to recognize.”

How deep do the carbon reservoirs go? Diamonds present an interesting evidence that carbon is indeed present at very deep levels. “The pressure needed to reach the domain of diamond stability [over geologic time, diamonds will degrade to graphite at lower pressures. Diamonds are not forever!] is 40,000 times our atmospheric pressure… that [pressure occurs] approximately 150km below the surface – in the earth’s mantle below even the crust… This in turn implies that carbon bearing fluids were abundant at those levels also, and that they deposited clean carbon [necessary for perfect diamonds].”

Are you convinced? It seems that we won’t run out of oil or gas or coal anytime soon. We just have to dig a little deeper. And better still, more is on the way. Fill’er up!

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