Plenty of Hydrocarbons from the Deep Hot Biosphere
We find oil so deep that it seems unlikely to be formed from trapped living surface organisms, as is currently supposed. The alternative, Abiogenic theory suggests that oil, natural gas and most coal represent hydrocarbons from deep down - but modified by microbial life in an unsuspected biosphere extending miles beneath us.
Today’s blogpost is based on a book by one Thomas Gold putting forward not just one but two radical theories about the world, each of which merit their own discussion. But they are so entwined with one another that they need to be considered in parallel.
The two ideas are:
1) There is a deep hot biosphere extending downwards for roughly 10 kilometres. If only a tiny percentage of the rock beneath us is made up of pores and fissures occupied by microbes, the subsurface biosphere’s biomass could be as great as that of all life on the surface of the Earth. It may even be that planets with uninhabitable surfaces could nevertheless have such underground biospheres. Earth’s surface life may be derived from deep biosphere life which later colonised the surface as conditions there became less hostile.
2) Many tens of kilometres further down hydrocarbons are welling up from massive reserves of hydrocarbons incorporated in the Earth as space debris coalesced to form our planet. Carbon is the fourth commonest element in the Universe and hydrocarbons have been known, since the early 20th century, to make up a significant proportion of matter in space. Hydrocarbons, molecules made of hydrogen and carbon, such as natural gas and crude oil, are thus not ‘fossil’ fuels. They are not mostly ‘biogenic’. They are not (mostly) the products of biological material - long dead ocean life (oil) or dead swamp plants (coal). They are instead ‘Abiogenic’.
The book in question is Thomas Gold’s ‘The Deep Hot Biosphere, The Myth of Fossil Fuels’. Thomas Gold was a scientific polymath who turned his talents to upending a number of areas of science. Amongst other theories, he proposed that the Earth’s axis of rotation occasionally flips by 90 degrees. If it happened now, the North and South Poles would find themselves on the Equator. (In the Solar system the planet Uranus rotates on its side). Evidence from other scientists subsequently suggested that Earth actually did rotate on its side in the early Cambrian period (thus endorsing Gold’s scientific credentials) - a time when an evolutionary surge produced the major branches of multicellular life we still have.
Suffice it to say that Gold remained a credible, and indeed tenured, scientist whilst deeply annoying believers in various scientific orthodoxies. As a libertarian, I expect state funding of science to subsidise special interest groupthink and repress new ideas. It is, after all, how the state stifles activity in domains that it controls. For more on state and special-interest distorted science, see Awah.uk Post ‘The Electric Universe’ (98% of the universe is missing!), and posts on ‘Covid’ and ‘Climate Change’. This time, conventional wisdom about the origins of life and ‘fossil fuels are running out’ is in the dissenters’ firing line.
THE CONNECTION IS ENERGY
How do these ideas about the hot deep biosphere and the non-fossil (Abiogenic) theory of hydrocarbon creation interact? The answer is energy. Life is based on extracting energy from passing energy-bearing flows. Energy has to be captured by an organism to fuel the operation, repair and reproduction of its body.
On the surface of the Earth, energy capture is brought about by plants which carry out photosynthesis. Plants capture the energy in photons (‘light’) from the sun to bash carbon dioxide and water (CO2 and H2O) together to make what amounts to a series of hydrocarbons – molecules containing hydrogen and carbon atoms. The resulting larger molecules store the sun’s energy. Fortunately, some excess oxygen (O2) is also left over. This has created, and now maintains, Earth’s 20% oxygen-rich atmosphere.
Except they aren’t all exactly hydrocarbons because there are OH bits instead of H (just hydrogen) dangling off some of the carbon atoms. That makes them ‘carbohydrates’ instead. The ‘ate’ ending generally signifies a compound with quite a bit of oxygen in it (and ‘ite’ or ‘ide’ endings indicate some, but not so much, oxygen). Glucose, for example is a large C6 H12 O6 energy-bearing carbohydrate molecule.
Further biochemical wizardry in plants and animals creates various versions as other atoms, such as gases and metals, are also attached to more complicated carbon/hydrogen/oxygen structures to make amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and therefore our bodies.
Building and operating plant and animal bodies requires energy which has to be released from food. Food in the Earth’s surface biosphere primarily means plant material containing carbohydrates and other ‘organic’ compounds (‘organic’ in this context means chemistry connected with carbon and hydrogen - so crude oil and we are both ‘organic’). Food also includes animal material because the creature in question ate plants, or other animals somewhere down the food chain ate plants. Plants (Nature’s taxpayers and producers) create hydrocarbon-based compounds storing usable energy. Animals (tax-consumers/parasites) steal them. And yes, CO2, laughably described as a pollutant by bureaucrats and the uninformed generally, is crucial to plant and therefore human life.
However that may be, plants and animals both also have to engage in respiration. Respiration means organisms grab oxygen from their environment and add it to (‘oxidise’) energy-bearing molecules. This creates successor molecules with lower energy states. The energy originally captured from the sun is thus seized by organisms to power their cells.
To sum up, there is an energy accumulation and consumption cycle running from photosynthesis to respiration. In photosynthesis, plants use power from the sun to create energy-rich compounds from CO2 (carbon dioxide) and H2O (water). Then plants (and animals) respire (add O2/oxygen) to release the stored energy in those compounds plus, you’ve guessed it, H2O and CO2 again. Thank God for photosynthesis and atmospheric oxygen, without which there would not be any life on the surface of our planet.
THE ORIGIN OF LIFE ON EARTH
The description above is meant to set the stage for explaining how life might function in the postulated deep hot biosphere, and to wonder how life got started on the Earth’s surface given that photosynthesis looks as though it might be a later specialism.
Photosynthesis could have been developed by microbes on Earth’s surface and therefore exposed to sunlight. The problem with the early surface of Earth, and the current surfaces of the solar system’s other planets and moons, is that they were, or are, deeply hostile to life. On the early Earth there was little if any free oxygen to enable respiration. There was also a heavy meteorite bombardment lasting many millions of years during the later stages of planetary formation. On other planets, and perhaps on the early Earth, atmospheres are, or were, noxious, bereft of surface liquid water, and exposed to radiation.
Scientists struggle to explain how life, or at least the complex amino acids of which life is made, ever came into being on the Earth’s surface. The search is on for rare, very hot pressurised watery surface environments where very uncommon accidents involving high energies from lightning might create such molecules. And then they have to explain how such unusual environments would last long enough for ‘life’ to take even a precarious hold.
Perhaps life began underground. As surface creatures we may take a dim view of life in a rocky crevice under immense pressure with no light or air. But, as a place for carrying on life and indeed getting it started, the deep hot biosphere would not be without its charms. There’s plenty of water. There’s oxygen for use in respiration. It can be prised relatively easily from abundant sulphur or iron compounds, although not as easily as we get O2 from our air. But the early Earth’s atmosphere didn’t have free oxygen either until plants developed photosynthesis. In the absence of atmospheric oxygen, life must have been doing something else to capture oxygen for respiration. Perhaps it was also doing it somewhere else than at the surface.
It is hot down there. Temperatures rise to well over 100 degrees centigrade, but warmth is good for facilitating life’s chemistry. Microbes that can thrive in temperatures of up to 150 degrees centigrade may well exist. Of course, you don’t want to be boiled alive, but courtesy of Boyle’s Law, water doesn’t boil even at 150 degrees under all that pressure. Plus, you are protected from temperature fluctuations, cosmic radiation and meteorite strikes which plague the surface.
Further down, perhaps 10 kilometres below us, the pressure of the rocks overhead should crush microbes’ very molecules. That defines the lower limit of the possible biosphere.
The interesting question is; before photosynthesis could take place on the surface, where could a microbe find the fuel to obtain energy through respiration? If you are looking for a hot pressurised environment with abundant chemical ingredients in order to facilitate freak accidents that create amino acid precursors, look no further than the deep hot biosphere. Billions of crevices and fractures in a roughly ten-kilometre-deep blanket around the whole planet give much greater scope for improbable chemistry to occur almost routinely.
If a complex molecule did come into being which had any tendency to replicate itself, however slowly and incompetently, it would not be derailed by sudden changes in its environment because down there, there aren’t any. A self-replicating molecule would just spread. Better self-replicating versions of the molecule would evolve (i.e. arise by accident and thrive faster). Life would be on its way to creating massive self-replicating piles of molecules like you and me and Fido, at least once the surface became habitable.
Of course, if it is much easier for life to arise deep down than on the surface, then it is possible that deep hot biospheres full of microbes already exist under the surfaces of superficially dead planets elsewhere. Perhaps most planets and moons are dripping with subsurface life. If deep biospheres were common in the Universe, then life need not have arisen on Earth at all. Some ‘alien’ microbes could have been blasted into space by meteorite or planetary catastrophe, perchance to colonise some foreign planetary shore.
What indications do we have that life exists at very hot temperatures prevailing in Earth’s would-be biosphere? Scientists have discovered extremophiles in volcanic pools. These are bacteria which can survive hot temperatures, including species that only reproduce at temperatures between 60 to 80 degrees centigrade. They have adaptations protecting their molecules from being disrupted by such heat.
On the Earth’s surface, under atmospheric pressure, water boils at 100 degrees centigrade and no creature can survive being boiled, or indeed being frozen. But further down temperatures of well over 100 degrees occur without boiling. It seems that microbes can keep their molecules protected from such heat. When we drill deep down to depths of 8 kilometres or so, remains of microbes, and of byproducts of life, are indeed discovered.
Another indicator of life’s tolerance for very high temperatures are deep-sea oases of life around plumes of superheated water in areas of tectonic plate formation. The multicellular marine animals living around the vents are evolved forms of ‘surface’ marine organisms. But what are they living on? Well, not photosynthesis down in the permanent darkness. The answer appears to be that the ecology of the vents is based on extremophile microbes.
HYDROCARBONS WELLING UP FROM THE EARTH
The second part of the Deep Hot Biosphere thesis is that well below the putative 10-kilometre limit of the microbial deep biosphere, hydrocarbons well up from tens or hundreds of kilometres further down. It is known by astronomers that space is hydrocarbon rich. It seems likely therefore that planets generally incorporate vast quantities of hydrocarbons during their formation.
There are even believed to be seas of methane on Titan, a moon orbiting the enormous ‘Gas Giant’ planet Saturn – the clue is in the name. It is so cold on Titan that methane can exist as a liquid, as it can deep beneath the earth where it cannot boil because of the pressure.
These hydrocarbons are lighter than the crushing weight of rock beneath us. They push their way up through the rocks, opening and penetrating fissures and pores, incidentally creating potential microbe habitats in the process. The initial flow as it reaches the underside of the deep biosphere is assumed to be made up mainly of lighter hydrocarbons such as methane and related components of natural gas such as ethane. Even methane under such pressures and temperatures will be in a superheated liquid form.
If we can survive through respiration of energy rich molecules mostly made up of hydrogen and carbon, deep biosphere microbes could in principle simply respire hydrocarbons – the energy-dense substances we use to fuel cars and planes, cook food and heat houses etc.
The idea is that the lighter hydrogen-rich hydrocarbon fractions – mainly methane (CH4) which is one carbon atom with four attached hydrogen atoms (CH4) are food to the microbes there. They tend progressively to strip away hydrogen atoms. Heavier and heavier hydrocarbons appear – carbon atoms are more than ten times heavier than hydrogen atoms.
The result of the microbes’ labours is the formation of various fractions of crude oil (petroleum) including gasoline and kerosene, and running up to much heavier molecules, including tars used to make soaps, and road surfaces. In some places nearer the surface nearly all the hydrogen may have been mined by microbes, leaving seams of fairly pure carbon in the form of coal.
So that, in a nutshell, is the ‘Abiogenic’ theory of hydrocarbon origins.
In the mainstream ‘Biogenic’ theory gas, oil and coal is basically finite historic biology. It is believed that rare instances of dead things being trapped underground resulted in transformation through pressure and heat into hydrocarbons. The Abiogenic theory is the other way around. Gas, oil and most coal are seen as geology in the form of light hydrocarbons transformed into heavier compounds by deep biosphere microbes.
Hydrocarbons which are not trapped in commercially useful concentrations reach the surface, often as methane. They break down in the atmosphere to produce carbon dioxide. In volcanic regions, hydrocarbons will have been destroyed underground by the heat, to release CO2 again. Volcanic eruptions produce comparatively massive quantities of CO2 implying access to potentially large quantities of hydrocarbons. It is worth bearing in mind that geological production of CO2 and methane may be much more important than humanity’s contributions. (Maybe the cows are innocent after all?)
Gold is not, however, saying that the Earth furnishes us with hydrocarbons as fast as we are extracting them. It seems there is not enough CO2 in the atmosphere for this to be the case. He does however calculate that atmospheric CO2 is wholly replenished every couple of million years from the outpouring of hydrocarbons at the surface. That the vital CO2 in the atmosphere is thus replenished, is evidence that the Earth is indeed continuously venting carbon-based compounds into the air. Which is a good thing. If it were not so, life on the surface would die because photosynthesis would no longer be possible.
The Abiogenic theory of hydrocarbon origins certainly implies that we have much greater reserves of hydrocarbons than the currently prevailing Biogenic theory of hydrocarbon formation suggests. We should be able to rely on it to power prosperity for much longer.
Also, given that the use of oil for high value non-fuel uses such as making plastics, synthetic fabrics and ingredients for consumer goods, accounts for roughly 1% of total oil production, such uses need never cease, or not in any comprehensible timescale.
EVIDENCE FOR ABIOGENIC OIL & GAS
The mainstream Biogenic theory of crude oil formation is that on rare occasions marine organisms to be trapped under accumulating sediments and warmed under pressure until they somehow became oil and gas. Nobody really knows how that happened but scientists assert that it must have happened since we have the oil to show for it.
The Biogenic theory held that coal was the result of terrestrial swamps being accidently trapped underground as earth movements gradually buried them. Heat and pressure are supposed to have converted their remains into coal. These explanations, based on rare and somewhat implausible occurrences, were the only things people well over a century ago could come up with. Astronomers had not yet discovered, still less communicated to geologists, the information that planets could contain abundant hydrocarbons.
It's very reminiscent of the way astronomers cooked up ‘runaway global warming’ to explain the wholly unexpected discovery that Venus is hotter than hell and has an atmosphere 3,000 times as dense as Earth’s. In fact, astronomers don’t know why this is the case. There is nothing in their gravity-based model of the Cosmos which would explain it. But as the ‘experts’, they can’t say so. In any case, climate alarmists prefer the public to fret about the possibility of runaway global warming even though they know it is impossible here (it is not predicted by even the wildest of their computer projections). In my post ‘The Electric Universe’, I discuss the failure of mainstream astronomy to factor in electromagnetic effects.
The Biogenic theory leads people to prospect for oil and coal in sedimentary rocks – rocks laid down, almost always in water, initially as sediments or layers of deposited material, such as sand, mud or tiny shells (sandstone, shale or limestone/chalk). It should also lead to oil and coal being found in different areas, since oil is supposed to be formed from marine organisms and coal from terrestrial plants.
But coal, gas and oil are very often found in the same regions. For some reason the rare, happy accidents that produced oil/gas in marine sediments, and coal from swamps on land, happened in the same areas. There is a distinct tendency for these accidents to happen on top of each other. Below a seam of coal, you very generally find more seams of coal. It seems that swamps were repeatedly buried by accident right on top of each other.
Notoriously, methane is all too common in coal mines, sometimes with explosive consequences. Hence the need to keep the famous canaries in the coal mines to warn of gas. Apparently coal seams can turn up in or near oil fields, in igneous (volcanic not sedimentary) rock and sometimes inclined at a marked slope despite being ostensibly ‘sedimentary’ in origin. Gold suggests that oil fields too may well be stacked up on top of each other at least in some regions. Methane and indeed petroleum apparently often occurred in metal mines, for example in tin mines in Cornwall and Devon.
Apparently, oil fields replenish themselves in many areas of the world, in particular in the Gulf of Mexico and the Middle East. Reserves in an oil field are evaluated by measuring how the pressure in the oil reservoir goes down as oil is extracted. If the extraction of a small quantity of oil results in a big fall in pressure, then the reservoir of oil is estimated to be rather small. However, it is common for a lot more oil to be extracted from a field than was originally estimated. There have been few big discoveries in the Middle East. But existing fields’ production and reserves have been holding up unexpectedly well. In the Mexican Gulf apparently exhausted wells can produce at original levels a few years later.
Refilling oil fields may help to explain why the Club of Rome’s estimates in the 1970s that oil would ‘run out’ forty years ago were so wrong.
Gold’s thesis is that hydrocarbon rich regions are sitting on deep plumes of upwelling hydrocarbons giving rise to concentrations of gas, oil and even coal reserves. Known oil and gas fields may just be the uppermost of stacks of such reserves, just as coal seams are evidently stacked above each other. As pressure goes down in the top field, more will tend to rise up from lower formations. The oil is not infinite, but it is potentially abundant.
The Abiogenic theory is supported by the fact that oil from each region of the world has common distinguishing characteristics. Venezuelan Crude is generally very heavy. The oil from each producing region is all ‘sour’ or ‘sweet’ (depending on sulphur content) to the same extent. It is not clear why oil trapped in different places and times and under various rocks in the same region, should be so similar. But if all the oil in a region is derived from the same flow of hydrocarbons, the uniformity is easier to understand.
Other supporting arguments for the Abiogenic theory are discussed in the book, including the idea that the variation in the ratio of carbon molecule isotopes in hydrocarbons is consistent with their having moved up from much further down in Earth’s crust, rather than being similar to the ratio found generally near the surface where oil, gas and coal are meant to have formed under the Biogenic theory.
Apparently, the presence of detectable quantities of helium in the air is an indicator that hydrocarbons are present in an area. But why? The Biogenic theory cannot explain it. Helium is the by-product of the radioactive decay of thorium and uranium. When the biogenic theory achieved its precarious ascendancy, scientists didn’t yet know either about the abundance of hydrocarbons in space, or about radioactive decay, which has kept the Earth warm by radioactive decay of elements deep in the Earth.
How would helium from deep in the Earth’s crust reach the surface, but only in association with hydrocarbons? Well, if hydrocarbons are welling up from down where helium is being generated, and are able to drag along helium and indeed other minerals with them, then that would provide an explanation. The hydrocarbon flows are leaching or ‘mining’ helium, and perhaps many other minerals, from deep down and transporting it to the surface.
THE SILJAN EXPERIMENT
In the late 1980s Gold had the opportunity to put his theory to a sort of test. Research into what is going on deep beneath us is difficult. The equipment needed to recreate conditions in such a hot pressurised environment is very expensive. So is drilling down several kilometres.
But $25 million became available in Sweden to drill for oil in a place where it should not be found. Siljan is an area in Sweden of igneous rock with very little sedimentary rock. The Biogenic theory suggests that oil should be found in sedimentary rocks. If oil were found in Siljan it would tend to discredit the Biogenic theory.
Unfortunately, the drillers ran out of money 8 km down. No dramatic gusher of oil had yet materialised. Could it have done so another kilometre or more down? Such a success could have put the Abiogenic theory on the map. However, some oil was found. They couldn’t recover more than a few tonnes of crude. The drill bit got gummed up by a foul-smelling muddy goo.
Much of this was thrown away in disgust, but a surviving sample seemed to contain tiny pieces of magnetite. Magnetite is an iron oxide, from which some of the oxygen has been removed, apparently by microbial action. In the absence of atmospheric free oxygen on the surface, deep biosphere organisms would, as discussed above, have to use oxygen freed from iron or sulphur compounds to carry on respiration – assumed to be of hydrocarbons.
The Siljan experiment was not decisive. But both hydrocarbons and the byproducts of life were indeed found deep down, suggesting that the deep hot biosphere does exist, and it does contain oil where it has no business to be if the Biogenic theory were correct.
CONCLUSIONS: ONWARD TO PROSPERITY OR BACK TO THE MIDDLE AGES
The Siljan experiment was not decisive. The jury is out. But it seems likely there is plenty more gas, oil and coal for us to find. Since Gold wrote his book, coal, oil and gas production has continued to expand in line with growing prosperity in most of the world. The real, inflation-adjusted, price of oil has been stable. This suggests that there is no real difficulty in finding and pumping more, still less any real ‘shortage’. All this is consistent with the more ample and continuing supplies of hydrocarbons implied by the Abiogenic theory.
Humanity has grown and prospered historically by finding and using increasingly energy dense fuel which has multiplied the production of food and everything else many times. Medieval men depended on wind, water and wood to power much poorer lives. Then along came coal, oil and gas – much more energy dense fuels that could power much more activity. The next step should be using various nuclear technologies.
Western states adopted the most dangerous nuclear technologies simply because they wanted materials suitable for use in nuclear missiles as by-products. The energy density of this approach is merely comparable to oil and gas. The expense and political stress caused by this state mismanagement of the nuclear opportunity is enormous.
Much higher energy densities are to be obtained, much more safely, by Thorium Salt generation. Such high densities, and new technologies such as the nuclear micro reactors powering hypersonic missiles, should allow the world’s population to achieve still higher standards of living. The Americans proved the technology was feasible in the 1960s but stopped work because it does not produce by-products for nuclear bombs. The Chinese and Russians both have pilot Thorium reactors where they are working on developing scaled-up commercial generation. For the Global South therefore the future should be bright.
But in the West there is a real danger of an attempt to go back to the poverty and reduced populations of Medieval times. The excuse for this dangerous and miserable ambition is firstly the Climate Change narrative, which I have discussed in other posts on www.awah.uk.
But it is also to do with the assumption that humanity is in danger of imminently ‘running out’ of hydrocarbons – an idea planted all those years ago by Western elites promoting Club of Rome style doom mongering. Gold’s Abiogenic theory of hydrocarbon creation goes a long way to suggesting that the latter concern is unfounded.
The politically fashionable gospel of energy scarcity is upheld by state and corporatist funded scientists, just like the Climate and Covid narratives. They have policy and vested interest axes to grind which have little to do with our wellbeing, and a great deal to do with their power and pay-cheques. That goes a long way towards explaining why Gold’s ideas have fallen on stony ground in the West.