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Methane synthesized
from inorganic chemicals

In 2004, Henry Scott of Indiana University in South Bend, together with scientific colleagues from Harvard University, the Carnegie Institute in Washington, and the Livermore National Lab, designed an experiment to test Thomas Gold’s theory of abiotic, deep-earth oil as expressed in his 1998 book, titled “The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels.” The research team included Dudley Herschbach, a Harvard University research professor of science and recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The scientists wanted to see if they could synthetically produce methane in a laboratory without using organic materials of any kind.

The research team decided to squeeze together iron oxide, calcium carbonate, and water at temperatures as hot as 500 degrees Celsius and under pressures as high as 11 gigapascals (one gigapascal is equivalent to the pressure of 10,000 atmospheres). Simply put, the scientists were trying to see if iron oxide, calcium carbonate, and water would produce methane if they were combined under pressures and temperatures comparable to those experienced in the Earth’s upper mantle.

To conduct the experiment, the scientists designed a “diamond anvil cell” mechanism consisting of two diamonds, each about three millimeters high (about one-eighth inch). The tips of the diamonds were pointed together, allowing them to compress a small metal plate designed to hold the sample of iron oxide, calcite (the primary component of marble) and water that the scientists wanted to force together.

The scientists then conducted a variety of highly accurate spectroscopic analyses on the sample material that resulted. Herschbach explained the diamonds were ideal material for the experiment because, as one of the “hardest substances on Earth, they can withstand the tremendous force, and because they’re transparent, scientists can use beams of light and X-rays to identify what’s inside the cell without pulling the diamonds apart.”

The basic idea was to smash the iron oxide, calcite and water together at the types of temperatures and pressures we would expect to see deep within the Earth and stand back to see what happened. The diamond mechanism provided a reliable way to take the end product and submit it to spectrographic analysis so its chemical content could be analyzed accurately. The goal was to prove that a hydrocarbon of the petroleum family could be produced via simple inorganic reactions involving no biological agents whatsoever.

Remarkably, the experiment worked. The scientists found they could easily produce methane, the principal component of natural gas, at temperatures around 500 degrees Celsius and at pressures of 7 gigapascals or greater. Inorganic chemicals (iron oxide, calcium carbonate and water) had been combined to produce an organic chemical – methane. Laurence Fried of Livermore Laboratory’s Chemistry and Minerals Science Directorate summed up the importance of these findings as follows:

The results demonstrate that methane readily forms by the reaction of marble with iron-rich minerals and water under conditions typical in Earth’s upper mantle. This suggests there may be untapped methane reserves well below Earth’s surface. Our calculations show that methane is thermodynamically stable under conditions typical of Earth’s mantle, indicating that such reserves could potentially exist for millions of years …

At temperatures above 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, we found that the carbon in calcite formed carbon dioxide rather than methane. This implies that methane in the interior of Earth might exist at depths between 100 and 200 kilometers. This has broad implications for the hydrocarbon reserves of our planet and could indicate that methane is more prevalent in the mantle than previously thought. Due to the vast size of Earth’s mantle, hydrocarbon reserves in the mantle could be much larger than reserves currently found in Earth’s crust.

The research further showed that methane is thermodynamically stable under conditions typical in the mantle of the Earth, “indicating that such reserves could potentially exist for millions of years.”

Moreover, the scientists concluded that “the potential may exist for the high-pressure formation of heavier hydrocarbons by using mantle-generated methane as a precursor.” This statement strongly suggested that the researchers were willing to conclude that their ability to generate methane synthetically in laboratory conditions simulating the heat and pressure conditions of the Earth’s mantle encouraged them to contemplate that methane may be a precursor to forming heavier hydrocarbons, possibly even petroleum, from abiotic processes in the Earth’s mantle.

In 1828, German chemist Friedrich Wohler synthetically created urea by heating cynanic acid and ammonia. In other words, urea, then known only as an organic substance that can be isolated from metabolically generated urine, had been generated by the combination of inorganic chemicals. This broke the presumption that had up to that time distinguished “organic” chemistry as devoted to a “living” class of chemicals that resulted from and possibly contained a “vital life force.”

Henry Scott’s experiment should have a similar impact on the world of hydrocarbons. If methane can be created synthetically from inorganic chemicals, biological content is not a necessary condition of methane’s formation. Laboratory-produced abiotic methane challenges directly the theory that hydrocarbon fuels are by definition organic in origin. While this experiment generated only methane, not the more complex hydrocarbon structures required for petroleum, the scientists involved stated their conclusion that their results encouraged them to believe that the more complex hydrocarbon structures could also be created in an abiotic manner.

“Fossil-fuel” theorists can respond by arguing that the experiment does not rule out the possibility that methane and other hydrocarbon fuels could be generated from protoplasm and flora. Still, the burden of proof has shifted. Thomas Gold himself made the point on page 85 of his 1998 book: “Nobody has yet synthesized crude oil or coal in the lab from a beaker of algae or ferns.”