The theory of abiogenic petroleum origin holds that natural petroleum was formed from deep carbon deposits, perhaps dating to the formation of the Earth. The ubiquity of hydrocarbons in the solar system is taken as evidence that there may be a great deal more petroleum on Earth than commonly thought, and that petroleum may originate from carbon-bearing fluids which migrate upward from the mantle.
Various abiogenic hypotheses were first proposed in the nineteenth century, most notably by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev and the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot. Since that time, these hypotheses have lost ground to the dominant view that petroleum is a fossil fuel. The biogenic hypothesis for petroleum was first proposed in 1757 by Russian scholar Mikhail Lomonosov.
Abiogenic hypotheses saw a revival in the last half of the twentieth century by Russian and Ukrainian scientists, and more interest has been generated in the West after the publication in 1999 of The Deep Hot Biosphere by Thomas Gold. Gold’s version of the hypothesis partly is based on the existence of a biosphere composed of thermophile bacteria in the earth’s crust, which may explain the existence of certain biomarkers in extracted petroleum.
Although the abiogenic theory, according to Gold, is widely accepted in Russia, where it was intensively developed in the 1950s and 1960s, the vast majority of Western petroleum geologists consider the biogenic theory of petroleum formation scientifically proven. Although evidence exists for abiogenic creation of methane and hydrocarbon gases within the Earth, they are not produced in commercially significant quantities, so that essentially all hydrocarbon gases that are extracted for use as fuel or raw materials are biogenic. There is no direct evidence to date of abiogenic petroleum (liquid crude oil and long-chain hydrocarbon compounds) formed abiogenically within the crust, which is the essential prediction of the abiogenic petroleum theory.
The abiogenic origin of petroleum (liquid hydrocarbon oils) has recently been reviewed in detail by Glasby, who raises a number of objections.
History of abiogenic theory
The abiogenic petroleum theory was founded upon several old interpretations of geology that stem from early 19th century notions of magmatism (which at the time was attributed to sulfur fires and bitumen burning underground) and of petroleum, which was thought by many to fuel volcanoes. Indeed, Wernerian appreciation of basalts at times saw them as solidified oils or bitumen. While these notions have been disabused, the basic notion that petroleum is associated with magmatism has persisted. The chief proponents of what would become the abiogenic theory were Mendeleevand Berthelot.
Russian geologist Nikolai Alexandrovitch Kudryavtsev was the first to propose the modern abiotic theory of petroleum in 1951. He analyzed the geology of the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada and concluded that no “source rocks” could form the enormous volume of hydrocarbons (estimated today 1.7 trillion barrels), and that therefore the most plausible explanation is abiotic deep petroleum. However, humic coals have been proposed for the source rocks by Stanton (2005).
Although this theory is supported by geologists in Russia and Ukraine, it has recently begun to receive attention in the West, where the biogenic petroleum theory is accepted by the vast majority of petroleum geologists. Kudryavtsev’s work was continued by many Russian researchers — Petr N. Kropotkin, Vladimir B. Porfir’ev, Emmanuil B. Chekaliuk, Vladilen A. Krayushkin, Georgi E. Boyko, Georgi I. Voitov, Grygori N. Dolenko, Iona V. Greenberg, Nikolai S. Beskrovny, Victor F. Linetsky and many others.
Astrophysicist Thomas Gold was one of the abiogenic theory’s most prominent proponents in recent years in the West, until his death in 2004. Dr. Jack Kenney of Gas Resources Corporation is perhaps the foremost proponent in the West. The theory receives continued attention in oil industry media.
Foundations of the hypotheses
Within the mantle, carbon may exist as hydrocarbon molecules, chiefly methane, and as elemental carbon, carbon dioxide and carbonates. The abiotic hypothesis is that a full suite of hydrocarbons found in petroleum can be generated in the mantle by abiogenic processes, and these hydrocarbons can migrate out of the mantle, into the crust until they escape to the surface or are trapped by impermeable strata, forming petroleum reservoirs.
Abiogenic theories reject the supposition that certain molecules found within petroleum, known as “biomarkers,” are indicative of the biological origin of petroleum. They contend that some of these molecules could have come from the microbes that the petroleum encounters in its upward migration through the crust, and that some of them are found in meteorites, which have presumably never contacted living material, and that some can be generated by plausible reactions in petroleum abiogenically.
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