The oil and gas that fuels our homes and cars started out as living organisms that died, were compressed, and heated under heavy layers of sediments in the Earth’s crust. Scientists have debated for years whether some of these hydrocarbons could also have been created deeper in the Earth and formed without organic matter. Now for the first time, scientists have found that ethane and heavier hydrocarbons can be synthesized under the pressure-temperature conditions of the upper mantle —the layer of Earth under the crust and on top of the core. The research was conducted by scientists at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory, with colleagues from Russia and Sweden, and is published in the July 26, advanced on-line issue of Nature Geoscience.
Methane (CH4) is the main constituent of natural gas, while ethane (C2H6) is used as a petrochemical feedstock. Both of these hydrocarbons, and others associated with fuel, are called saturated hydrocarbons because they have simple, single bonds and are saturated with hydrogen. Using a diamond anvil cell and a laser heat source, the scientists first subjected methane to pressures exceeding 20 thousand times the atmospheric pressure at sea level and temperatures ranging from 1,300 F° to over 2,240 F°. These conditions mimic those found 40 to 95 miles deep inside the Earth. The methane reacted and formed ethane, propane, butane, molecular hydrogen, and graphite. The scientists then subjected ethane to the same conditions and it produced methane. The transformations suggest heavier hydrocarbons could exist deep down. The reversibility implies that the synthesis of saturated hydrocarbons is thermodynamically controlled and does not require organic matter.
… This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Agency through the Carnegie/DOE Alliance Center, the National Science Foundation, the W.M. Keck Foundation, and the Carnegie Institution.
See abiogenic petroleum.