Evgeny Yantovski: Thomas Gold and the Future of Methane as a Fuel

Posted: November 25, 2014 by tallbloke in Carbon cycle, Energy, geothermal, innovation, Travel
Tags: , ,

H/T to @IntrepidWanders for this paper, which lays out in clear terms the argument for abiotic oil/gas. I’ll post the second half next.

Saturn seen across a sea of methane on Titan by Huygens probe 2005

Saturn seen across a sea of methane on Titan. Artists impression. Credit: NASA/JPL Gregor Kervina

Evgeny Yantovski
Independent researcher
Elsass str. 58, D-52068 Aachen, Germany

Thomas Gold was a main participant and contributor in the controversy between the biogenic
and abiogenic theories of the origin of hydrocarbons, a controversy launched by the abiogenic
views of Mendeleev and supported by other Russian and Ukrainian authors. The great success
of Gold’s forecasts is illustrated by a photo of the methane seas on the cold planetary body
Titan. Recently Scott et al.’s experiment on methane formation at high pressure suggests a
possibility of methane formation in the mantle. Some thermodynamic equilibrium
calculations suggest a possible exothermic reaction of carbon dioxide with fayalite producing
methane. In this view, carbon could play the role of an energy carrier from fayalite to
methane and then to a power plant and in a closed cycle be reinjected in Earth. Fayalite
becomes a fuel, with methane the energy carrier. Methane is then a renewable energy source.
The search for methane in Earth and resoluton of its origins deserve more efforts than ever

The best known source of methane is natural gas. Methane can also be produced as
biogas, typically from organic waste. In this case combustion of the fuel is carbon neutral, as
it originates from photosynthesis from reduced CO2. Recent evidence suggests that much
more methane than previously suspected may be available to us. Many authors have
discussed the availability of methane hydrates in which methane is “stored” inside a complex
molecular structure. These hydrates could become an important source of methane in years to
come. Deep gas pools also hold much unused methane. Expectations for exploration,
development, and use depend upon the origin of hydrocarbons.
Biogenic theory states that hydrocarbons originated from debris of former organic life.
They are located in the sedimentary layer, not too deep. Such views are popular up to now,
especially in the West.

Abiogenic theory, first introduced by D. Mendeleev in 1877, predicts the production
of hydrocarbon fuels by inorganic processes. N. Koudriavtsev greatly developed this theory
(1,2). E. Tchekaliuk offered a thermodynamic background for oil formation (3). The best
known recent advocate of abiogenic theory, Thomas Gold, discussed the production of
hydrocarbon fuels simultaneously with other substances in the depths of Earth (4, 5). Gold’s
view led him to predict rivers and seas of methane on the surface of cold planets where
organic life never existed.

Rivers running into a sea of methane. Taken from 8km by Huygens probe descending to Titan 2005

Rivers running into a sea of methane. Taken from 8km by Huygens probe descending to Titan 2005

Gold passed away in July 2004, 6 months before the European Space Agency’s probe
Huygens landed on Saturn’s largest moon, the cold Titan (about –180° C), and made photos
of the rivers and seas of methane Gold had predicted. As we see in Figure 2, shot from an
altitude of 8 km, and Figures 1 and 3, made after landing 14 January 2005, the quantities of
methane are astonishing. The distance from Titan to Earth was about 1.5 light-hours.

A methane lake laps the ice mountains of Titan. Huygens probe 2005.

A methane lake laps the ice mountains of Titan. Artists impression.

Origin of hydrocarbons
Starting from his essay “Rethinking the Origin of Oil and Gas” in the Wall Street
Journal, June 8, 1977, Gold synthesized his popular and technical papers into two books
(4,5). His central ideas might be expressed in a few sentences. According to Gold, our planet
is like a sponge, filled by primordial hydrocarbons. They were formed together with the other
substances of the deep Earth about 4 billion years ago. Due to their much lower density than
the surrounding porous rocks, an upwelling of hydrocarbons, mainly methane, takes place
from a depth of hundreds of kilometres. This permanent seepage from below fills the known

pools of oil and gas, and some eventually escapes to the atmosphere. Hydrocarbons lose
hydrogen along the way from initial CH4 finally to CH0.8 (coal), and even in some places and
conditions to pure carbon as diamond. In Gold’s view, there is good reason to consider
hydrocarbon fuels as an almost unlimited source of energy
Gold gives strong arguments in favor of his views, using his outstanding erudition in
astrophysics, chemistry, and biology. Some facts are impossible to explain by the biogenic

-methane rivers now observed on the surface of cold planetary bodies like Titan, where a
possibility of organic life never existed;
-tremendous methane outflow accompanying volcanic eruptions, together with hot lava; and
-refilling of depleted oil reservoirs, registered in many places, for instance near Eugene Island
in the Gulf of Mexico (Wall Street Journal, 16 April 1999).

The main argument of biogenic theory proponents is the existence in crude oil of some
molecules that indisputably belong to living matter because they manifest a chiral effect
(predominant rotation of polarized light). The presence of biogenic molecules is actually an
important part of the abiogenic concept as well, but it turns the old logic upside down. It is
not that bacteria produced the hydrocarbons, but that the primordial hydrocarbon “soup” gave
food to bacteria. The total mass of organic substance of these microbes is estimated to be
hundreds of thousands of gigatons, much more than the organic mass of the surface biota.
Indeed, reasons exist to consider deep underground layers as the more probable place
for the origin of life. Perhaps ten planetary bodies in our solar system could produce suitable
subsurface abodes for the same kind of life as we have within Earth. Any rocky planetary
body at least as big as our Moon might be expected to offer the requisite subsurface
conditions of heat and upwelling hydrocarbons. An instrument placed on the Moon by an
Apollo mission detected gas particles of atomic mass 16, which could only be methane.
Panspermia (transfer of life) between planets of a planetary system would be a possibility, as
the Martian meteorite has shown.

The triumph, not always recognized, of the abiogenic theory was the drilling
experiment in the Siljan Ring in Sweden. Microbes were found at a depth of 6 km, eating oil
and getting oxygen by reducing Fe2O3 to Fe3O4, thus leaving behind tiny particles of
magnetite (fraction of a micron in size) as the product of metabolism. Gold himself observed
that the liquid formed by these particles within the extracted oil sample had magnetic

In addition to the drilling experiment in Sweden, a deeper one on the Kola peninsula in
Russia had shown, in complete accord with Gold’s predictions, that at a depth of about 10 km
the fractured rocks were filled with highly compressed methane. Former life could not have
reached such a depth and given such a tremendous quantity of methane.
Some tectonic movements might be connected with upwelling of methane and
accompanying gases such as hydrogen sulfide, which are in turn connected with earthquakes.
An increase of surface gas emissions before earthquakes is often sensitively detected by rats
and other animals, who manifest unusual behaviour prior to earthquakes, as documented by
numerous earthquake eyewitnesses.

Abiogenic theory also offers an explanation of the formation of metal deposits in the
deep Earth. Leaching by upwelling of hydrocarbons creates along the way the organometallic

Gold respectfully acknowledges his predecessors in abiogenic theory, in particular the
Russian and Ukrainian scientists Mendeleev, Koudriavtsev, Tchekaliuk, and Kropotkin. The
last gave Gold much geological information.

Liquid methane cannot exist on Earth’s surface due to its temperature. But, at high
pressure methane might exist in the deep Earth on the upper mantle level in a supercritical
state. One of the last arguments of biogenic advocates is: Yes, in Earth’s crust it is possible to
find abiogenic methane or other hydrocarbons, but the quantity is rather small, hence not
commercial. What we see in the images of Titan is the large quantity, obviously not
commercial for Earth 1.5 light hours away. The large quantities seen in volcanic eruptions,
methane hydrates, or deep drilling as in the Kola peninsula are still not commercial either.
Exploration for large quantities does not violate mass conservation or other physical laws. On
Earth methane exists. In our view, the challenge is only for technology

Evidence of methane production by inorganic processes has now also been shown
experimentally by Scott et. al. who formed methane from FeO, CaCO3-calcite, and water at
pressures between 5 and 11 GPa and temperatures ranging from 500°C to 1,500°C (6). Other
relevant data come from hydrothermal conditions (7). These experiments, backed by
calculation, demonstrate that hydrocarbons may be formed in the upper mantle of Earth and
confirm the general view formulated in a book by Korotaev et al. where P.N. Kropotkin
compiled many data on abiogenic methane (8).

If sources of methane abound, the main restrictions on its use are pollution of the
atmosphere by exhaust gases and the amount of oxygen available for combustion in the
atmosphere. High-temperature, high-pressure zero-emission power plants (ZEPPs) offer the
possibility of using currently available methane stores efficiently without pollution. As for
the oxygen restriction, a shortage is unlikely to trouble the current century. The total mass of
oxygen in the atmosphere is about 1015 tons, while the current consumption of oxygen is only
about 3 x 1011 tons. Any problems caused by this 0.03% per annum reduction in oxygen
levels have yet to become apparent. One hopes if they ever do become apparent, solar,
nuclear, or other alternatives will have become the dominant sources of primary energy.

  1. oldbrew says:

    ‘The total mass of oxygen in the atmosphere is about 1015 tons, while the current consumption of oxygen is only about 3 x 1011 tons. ‘

    Shouldn’t that be 10^15 and 10^11? (^ = power of)

  2. tallbloke says:

    Yes, cutting and pasting from.pdf is fraught with formatting problems, I’ll fix it. I also lost a chunk in the cut/paste, now restored.

  3. oldbrew says:

    ‘refilling of depleted oil reservoirs’ could be due to gravity in theory so not necessarily evidence of anything.

    On the other hand methane in volcanic lava, and Titan’s massive methane lakes, seem to put the skids under ‘fossils only’ theory.

  4. PeterF says:

    The pictures are interesting, but I must say the first picture looks too artisty to be real, and the third one too much like a lake in the alps. Both are claimed to result from the Huygens probe.

    I’d very much like to get links to the original sources to believe the genuine origin of the pictures. Do we know that source?

  5. tallbloke says:

    Peter F: The source of 2 is ESA – the European Space Agency


    Have a look around and come back with your findings.
    I think your right that 1 and 3 are artists impressions
    eg: http://www.astrobio.net/news-exclusive/the-stuff-of-life-on-titan/

    I’ve edited the captions, thanks.

  6. oldbrew says:

    @ PeterF – try here…


    This one shows some methane lakes:

  7. PeterF says:

    Yeah, thanks for the links tallbloke and oldbrew, those pictures are more as expected for such mission. Not less exciting, but you have to be a real expert in the field to appreciate them :-/

    However, in the original pdf they are clearly labelled as genuine, which is a false statement and for me it immediately takes away some of the credibility of the whole paper!

    And given that the paper was written after 2005 (a publication from 2005 was cited, and the pdf-properties give a creation date of 2006) it makes me wonder, why a highly relevant publication was not cited:

    Kenney et al., PNAS, 2002, vol 99, no 17, page 10976ff

    I find it really hard to miss that. And while we are at it, equally relevant is a paper from a few years later: Kolesnikov et al., nature geoscience, 2009, vol 2, page 566ff

    While I find the abionic theory more convincing than the claims of dinosaurs with an algae gravy turning into petrol, I’d like to understand more.

    I know that Uranus has quite a few hydrocarbons on it/in its atmosphere. What about the other planets and moons? What about extra-solar system objects? And given the need for 30kbar (depth of ~100km on earth) and 1500°C (see above publications) what comets – if any – would qualify for abionic creation of hydrocarbons?

    Furthermore, all natural gas on earth is a mix of methane plus higher hydrocarbons (ethane, propane, butane,…) in decreasing proportions, and, as far as I know, this is also true for Titan’s stuff. Within the abionic therory it can easily be explained, AND was demonstrated in a lab experiment (see publications).

    But how do you explain this with the biogenic theory? There is no microorganism on earth, which produces anything beyond methane, true? So, now we need to claim some thermogenic process, which produces higher alkanes from methane at conditions like where oil/gas is found today, i.e. of only a few 1000m below ground, plus at only a few hundred degrees.

    I am not aware of anyone having ever demonstrated – in a lab experiment – that given those conditions higher alkanes would be created. Let alone oil.

  8. Geology Joe says:

    Recharge of reservoirs is quite common. Hydrocarbons move on geological time scales. This issue means nothing wrt biogenic vs. abiogenic origins. I have seen wells go from being depleted to producing hundreds of barrels of oil per day after being shut in for 40 years. All that happened was that the oil migrated via buoyancy from the tighter part of the reservoir to a more permeable area where it could be recovered. No big deal.

    The fayalite issue is just plain silly. Stating that this chemical reaction would make methane a “renewable resource” is incorrect as the gas accumulations would still occur naturally over geologic time. Abiogenic methane production would be just as much of a “fossil” fuel as biogenic methane.

  9. catweazle666 says:

    the amount of oxygen available for combustion in the atmosphere.

    Presumably the resulting CO2 will be converted back to oxygen by photosynthesis?

  10. oldbrew says:

    ‘Many authors have discussed the availability of methane hydrates in which methane is “stored” inside a complex molecular structure.’ — Like this – a pentagonal dodecahedron:

    U.S. Geological Survey Gas Hydrates Project: Gas Hydrates Primer – What is Gas Hydrate?


  11. Curious George says:

    An extremely useful post. It shows how much we still don’t know. Thanks for a gas hydrate link.

    A very nice artist’s impression sidesteps an unfortunate problem: Titan’s atmosphere is very hazy.

  12. ferdberple says:

    we can see the biological reservoirs that created coal – today’s peat bogs. but we don’t see similar reservoirs for oil and gas formation. we should see these deposits being formed today – where are they? Is it possible that the reservoir for natural gas is limestone, produced by the combination of CO2 and Ca by marine organisms?

    methane most certainly can be produced within the mantle due to plate tectonics, reducing limestone and water in the presence of iron, heat and pressure. More complex hydrocarbons would also be formed, likely in proportion to their complexity and stability. Those less dense than water would float upwards through the rocks. Some of this ultimately is released to the atmosphere, the rest is trapped under layers of impervious rock.

    I suspect this process continues to this day on a scale as yet unrecognized, with large volumes of methane released to the atmosphere each year and oxidized by bacterial action into water and CO2. Ultimately this CO2 finds it way to the ocean floor, after combination with calcium by sea-life to form limestone. And from there is carried once more into the earth for recycling.

  13. ferdberple says:

    sb: with large volumes of methane released to the oceans and atmosphere each year. likely most of the methane is released to the oceans and consumed there before ever reaching the atmosphere.

  14. ferdberple says:

    The notion that oil and natural gas are composed from the bodies of dead bacteria and animals helps keep the price high. we should only find oil and gas near the surface, thus it should be rare.

    if however oil and gas are the result of the beak-down of limestone and water within the earth’s mantle, we are obviously going to also find it much deeper within the earth, and in much greater volume than originally thought. Which is pretty much what fracking is showing us.

    Folks are going to be a lot more skeptical that we are running out of limestone and water as compared to running out of dead dinosaurs.

  15. Roger, methane does not oxidise in the atmosphere. With air it needs an ignition temperature of 650C. There is a natural cycle of emission and absorption. The absorption comes from a very slight solubility in water (oceans) where some plant life (algae) can directly use it for growth. Some plants on land can also use methane. The other part of the cycle is oxidation by ozone which will occur slowly in the ozone layer. Lightning can cause ozone and of course is associated with high temperature. However, the burning of any methane is limited because there is a minimum concentration level for flammability of 5%. Fireballs can occur from bubbles of methane given off from swamps and then struck by lightning. You will see on my post about methane that I caught Willis E out for his lack of knowledge about chemistry and reaction kinetics (an engineering discipline which most (science) chemists do not understand. Propane and butane which in LPG used as fuel in your BBQ also does not burn until it is ignited -try it by turning on the value. Your gas bottle will empty and the gas will disperse.
    It is a lie that methane gas is a worse “greenhouse” (as defined by IPCC). If one takes in account that water vapor absorbs IR then when CH4 is burnt ( to 1*CO2 +2*H2O) it will absorb 21 times IR compared to CO2 alone BUT IT DOES NOT BURN IN THE ATMOSPHERE.

  16. PeterF says:

    The fact that methane does not burst into flames in the atmosphere does not mean it won’t be oxidized! There is energy to be gained from oxidizing methane, so entropy will drive it towards CO2 and H20.

    I don’t know what the half life of methane in the atmosphere is.

  17. George Field says:

    I knew Tommy well, and was always intrigued by his abiotic origin. This website seems to imply that his ideas are becoming more accepted. Is that true? By the way, I was present at a meeting at which he argued against man in space, suggesting that robots would be much cheaper because the spececraft would not have to be man rated. Another benefit he pointed out is that robots have a far greater economic payoff.

  18. oldbrew says:

    One of the authors of a research paper points out:

    there is no way that fossil oil, with the help of gravity or other forces, could have seeped down to a depth of 10.5 kilometers in the state of Texas, for example, which is rich in oil deposits. As Vladimir Kutcherov sees it, this is further proof, alongside his own research findings, of the genesis of these energy sources — that they can be created in other ways than via fossils. This has long been a matter of lively discussion among scientists.’