Most geologists view crude oil and natural gas as the product of compression and heating of ancient organic materials over geological time. Oil is formed from the preserved remains of prehistoric zooplankton and algae which have been settled to the sea (or lake) bottom in large quantities under anoxic conditions. Terrestrial plants, on the other hand, tend to form coal. Over geological time this organic matter, mixed with mud, is buried under heavy layers of sediment. The resulting high levels of heat and pressure cause the organic matter to chemically change during diagenesis, first into a waxy material known as kerogen which is found in various oil shales around the world, and then with more heat into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons in a process known as catagenesis. Geologists often refer to an “oil window” which is the temperature range that oil forms in—below the minimum temperature oil remains trapped in the form of kerogen, and above the maximum temperature the oil is converted to natural gas through the process of thermal cracking. Though this happens at different depths in different locations around the world, a ‘typical’ depth for the oil window might be 4–6 km. Note that even if oil is formed at extreme depths, it may be trapped at much shallower depths where it was not formed (the Athabasca Oil Sands is one example).
Because most hydrocarbons are lighter than rock or water, these often migrate upward through adjacent rock layers until they either reach the surface or become trapped beneath impermeable rocks, within porous rocks called reservoirs. However, the process is not straightforward since it is influenced by underground water flows, and oil may migrate hundreds of kilometres horizontally or even short distances downward before becoming trapped in a reservoir. Concentration of hydrocarbons in a trap forms an oil field, from which the liquid can be extracted by drilling and pumping. Three conditions must be present for oil reservoirs to form: first, a source rock rich in organic material buried deep enough for subterranean heat to cook it into oil; second, a porous and permeable reservoir rock for it to accumulate in; and last a cap rock (seal) or other mechanisms that prevents it from escaping to the surface. Within these reservoirs fluids will typically organize themselves like a three-layer cake with a layer of water below the oil layer and a layer of gas above it, although the different layers vary in size between reservoirs. The vast majority of oil that has been produced by the earth has long ago escaped to the surface and been biodegraded by oil-eating bacteria. Oil companies are looking for the small fraction that has been trapped by this rare combination of circumstances. Oil sands are reservoirs of partially biodegraded oil still in the process of escaping, but contain so much migrating oil that, although most of it has escaped, vast amounts are still present – more than can be found in conventional oil reservoirs. On the other hand, oil shales are source rocks that have never been buried deep enough to convert their trapped kerogen into oil. The reactions that produce oil and natural gas are often modeled as first order breakdown reactions, where kerogen is broken down to oil and natural gas by a set of parallel reactions, and oil eventually breaks down to natural gas by another set of reactions. The first set was originally patented in 1694 under British Crown Patent No. 330 covering,
“a way to extract and make great quantityes of pitch, tarr, and oyle out of a sort of stone.”
The latter set is regularly used in petrochemical plants and oil refineries.
- High hopes for hydrocarbons (ekathimerini.com)
- Bacteria in Oilfields (idyllic.wordpress.com)