Methane forms under space conditions in laboratory

Posted: April 20, 2020 by oldbrew in research
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Natural gas flare [credit: Wikipedia]

It’s now thought that methane, aka natural gas, existed even before planet formation, which looks like the final nail in the coffin for the idea that it should be regarded exclusively as a ‘fossil’ fuel.
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An international team of astronomers has shown in a laboratory at Leiden University (the Netherlands) that methane can form on icy dust particles in space, reports

The possibility had existed for quite some time, but because the conditions in space were difficult to simulate, it was not possible to prove this under relevant space conditions.

The researchers will publish their findings Monday evening in the journal, Nature Astronomy.

Methane on Earth

Methane, known to us as the main compound of natural gas, is one of the simplest hydrocarbons. It consists of a carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms: CH4. On Earth, we mainly know methane as a flammable gas that forms from decaying organic material.

Methane in space

Methane is also available in space as a gas, liquid, or ice. For example, Neptune and Uranus contain, in addition to hydrogen and helium, mainly methane gas. Saturn’s moon, Titan, the only moon in our solar system with a dense atmosphere, does not rain water but liquefied methane.

Outside of our solar system in interstellar space, methane ice is one of the ten most abundant ices to be detected.

Ice grain dust as hangout

The prevailing opinion about how methane is created in space is that CH is formed first, then CH2, CH3, and finally CH4. In the gas phase, this reaction is slow. But because methane is formed on an icy dust grain, the grain itself helps speed-up the formation process.

For example, dust grains provide a ‘hangout’ spot for atoms, increasing their likelihood to meet each other in the vastness of space. They can also absorb the energy that is produced from chemical reactions that would otherwise break apart molecules, such as methane.

Creating methane in ‘space lab’

Researchers from the Laboratory for Astrophysics at Leiden Observatory (Leiden University, the Netherlands) have now for the first time succeeded in making methane under relevant space conditions. They let hydrogen atoms collide with carbon atoms at minus 263 degrees Celsius (-442 °F, 10 K) in an ultrahigh vacuum environment on an ice-cold surface.

The researchers had previously succeeded in making water (H2O) and ammonia (NH3) in a similar way. They did so by letting oxygen and nitrogen atoms react with hydrogen atoms.

However, reactions with carbon atoms proved to be more challenging. That is because carbon is very sticky, which makes experimenting with it very difficult.

Danna Qasim, Ph.D. student at Leiden Observatory and lead author of the scientific publication in Nature Astronomy, adds: “It is difficult to conduct an experiment with carbon atoms. Carbon likes to stick, so it is challenging to produce a controlled beam of pure carbon atoms. At the same time, you have to make sure that after an experiment, your entire setup is not completely covered with carbon.”

The researchers were able to vary the conditions in their experiments. This allowed them to investigate exactly how and how efficiently methane can be formed by the reaction of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

Full report here.

  1. stpaulchuck says:

    “For example, Neptune and Uranus contain, in addition to hydrogen and helium, mainly methane gas.”

    So then, how many million dinosaurs or space critters or forests died to create all that gas?? The Russians have demonstrated a number of non-biological paths to oil, and gas here on Earth. Then we’ve discovered this HUGE amount of methane on other planetary bodies, and still the moron class keeps insisting that it’s all from fossils. Which, of course is why the now debunked ‘peak oil’ farce played for so many years.

    I weary of the warmists and their snake oil salesmen. Then there’s the internecine warfare in the energy industry itself: coal vs oil vs nukes, Russian oil vs Arab oil, vs American oil, etc., etc. While is should be beneficial to the consumers, government has been overtaken by central planners who are nowadays SJW’s and competitors for Pious Points. Thus – “clean” energy, an epic oxymoron, while energy production has been cleaned up significantly and with more natgas it is even cleaner.

  2. Oh no!
    Methane between the earth and sun, no wonder its warming…….

  3. pochas94 says:

    I had my suspicions after learning about the methane lakes on Titan.

  4. Stuart Brown says:

    If life hadn’t started on Earth, wouldn’t the atmosphere be largely CO2 and CH4 too? And largely not buried underground, since those molecules are lighter than other stuff?

    My point is that whether oil and gas have come to us cycled through plants and animals or not really doesn’t change the fundamentals of where it came from in the first place. All the C, H, O etc has to have come from space (exploding stars), and usually assembled into molecules of one sort or another. It doesn’t appear underground by magic, nor in plants.

    The fact that there is abiotic methane floating about in space, on Titan or gas giants shouldn’t be any surprise or we wouldn’t be here to argue the point!

    Nice to see some observational/experimental science as a change from WuFlu number watching everywhere, thanks!