Blogs > Cliopatria > They're Not Fossil Fuels?

Mar 26, 2005 7:26 pm

They're Not Fossil Fuels?

Experiments by Harvard and Carnegie Institute scholars have confirmed that, under deep-earth pressures, non-living compounds can combine to create methane. Apparently this experiment was the result of a happy coincidence: a Nobel laureate with access to a"diamond anvil" (on left) capable of recreating pressures equivalent to depths from 140 to 4000 miles below the earth (and allowing the results inside to be examined with laser and X-ray without being opened) happens to be interested in the history of his field. In this case the history was a book about periodic table developer Dmitri Mendeleev, a member of a tradition of Russian and Ukranian scientists who believed that petroleum products might be the result of"abiotic" (non-living) processes rather than the remains of ancient plants and animals.

"The new findings may serve to corroborate other evidence, cited by Gold, that some of the earth's reservoirs of oil appear to refill as they're pumped out, suggesting that petroleum may be continually generated. This could have broad implications....." Really?

Bio-Feedback (so to speak): I was talking to a couple of friends during our sons' swim class, and the price of oil came up, so I mentioned the Herschberg experiments above. The astrophysicist pointed out that limestone, one of the major components of the experiments cited above, is a byproduct of living organisms: molluscs and shellfish. The computer scientist pointed out that, impressive as that is, it's easier to make petroleum products starting from living tissue waste: turkey guts and medical waste. The byproducts of that process are heavy oils, fertilizer-quality nitrogen compounds, distilled water, methane, activated carbon and"dry minerals." The methane goes back into running the plant, and when you add in the payments from the turkey processor for waste disposal (now that the Mad Cow scare has abated, the plant has to pay for turkey waste, since it competes with cattle feeders), the oil produced is nearly commercially viable. The article I found is almost two years old, so here's an update with current costs and inputs, and noting that Europeans are interested in the technology.

Truth is wierder than fiction: On or before the ides of March, someone stole the"Ides of March" a work that has been called an"American Stonehenge" (see for yourself on right). Why? How? Why?

Recantation: When I suggested that handguns and hunting weapons should be legal and easily obtained because they are less problematic than more powerful weapons, I was wrong. I hereby return to my default position: guns are dangerous; the more guns, the greater the danger; the less controls, the greater the danger.

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marion street - 7/20/2005

Ok, smart guys ....

Q. How do we know that dinosaurs could fly?
A. They had to fly to be able to get to Saturn's moon, where they landed, died by the billions over eons of time, then heat and pressure converted them to methane. That is why the recent Huygens-Cassini data shows that the moon of Saturn is covered by an ocean of methane!
The idea that natural gas is a fossil fuel is an arabic myth. Natural Gas is a mineral. It is located in abundance throughout the solar system. That ought to tell you guys something. Stop lying about fossil fuels. You are cheating your childern out of their future. Admit NOW that natural gas is a mineral.
P.S. - so is oil. they found it seeping out of the core of the earth through fissures in the earth's crust. That's why the oilwells refill.
Man, are you guys ever missing the boat!

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/28/2005


I did not wish to imply that you were given to such thinking. But given the way that pro-pollution forces have misused the science surrounding climate change, I have little hope for such intelligence and restraint in other quarters.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/28/2005

I was going to huffily point out that I wouldn't jump to those sorts of conclusions, but I certainly might have given that impression. I really think that the scientific and business communities should be jumping all over this scholarship so that we actually have usable -- if tentative -- answers in the next 1-2 years. There are other reasons to pursue energy efficiency and pollution prevention than the simple exhaustion of the supply, but the abiotic process might explain, for example, some of the difficulty in pinning down the Hibbert peak; we might actually have a bigger sense of crisis if we had a firm date for the downturn in production, even if it wasn't going to be as fast of a downturn as we initially thought.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/28/2005

A cationary note: we don't know how rapidly non fossil oil is created nor the extent to which known deposits came from such sources. One of my fears is that this will be used as a reason to continue the status quo long before the evidence of its signficance is known.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/28/2005

Among other things, yes. It completely changes the long-term economics of petroleum fuels in existing fields, as well. So much for the Hibbert Curve....

Jonathan Dresner - 3/28/2005

I agree that my statement is simple. I disagree that it is simplistic, because it in no way precludes other factors from consideration.

I would ask if the "rapidly rising use of guns in crimes" corresponds to a rise in the availability of legal guns or of illegal guns? Actually, it doesn't matter: what counts (and this is where my Japan experience is relevant) is that if you see someone with a gun but not a uniform, they are almost certainly a criminal and you can respond appropriately.

I have sometimes toyed with the idea of replacing our gun culture with a return to legalized blade sidearms: excellent for personal defense; weak offensive weapons against similarly armed opponents. And dueling would cut down on our need for lawyers, wouldn't it? Licensing would still be required, I think, but it would be more like driver licensing than gun licensing.

Michael Meo - 3/27/2005

I agree. The late Thomas Gold's presentation of the case for abiotic hydrocarbons was/is cogent, well-argued, and compelling.

That is, in this case there are specific reasons why your general inclination leads to the most likely supposition.

John H. Lederer - 3/27/2005

I think the significance of the oil "not from rotted dinosaurs" is that there may be oil in a far greater range of areas where there has never been exploration because they were deemed geologically unsuitable.

John H. Lederer - 3/27/2005

"I hereby return to my default position: guns are dangerous; the more guns, the greater the danger; the less controls, the greater the danger."

Something seems awry with this simple approach when contemplating the recent British experience (an almost total ban on firearms requiring turning them in) accompanied by a rapidly increasing use of guns in crimes. There can be lots of contributing factors that obscure the results (note that in the U.S. criminal statistics by race or urabn/rural are almost always wildly different from averages), but the simple statement "the more guns, the greater the danger; the less controls, the greater the danger" seems almost surely wrong.

The British experience seems to have been duplicated in Australia though the gun crimes statistics there seem to be a bit of a political issue and consequently available in many different flavors.

I do note that the occasional news item floats across my screen in which some indomitable superannuated English grandmother defends herself against the intruder with her grandfather's cavalry saber.....<g>

Jonathan Dresner - 3/26/2005

I've known a great number of scientists, engineers, and other folks who are interested in the histories of their fields, but the quality of that interest seems to vary considerably. There's a fair bit of antiquarianism, some hero-worship, and lots of collections of oddities, and a very conventional progressive narrative.

What there isn't much of, it seems to me, is contextual awareness (relationship between technologists and their developments and the lives of other people; I make an exception, of course, for the "and that revolutionized everything" triumphalism) and critical analysis of ideas that goes beyond the "they thought this and they were wrong, as we later discovered" sort of Englightenment narrative. Without looking, it's hard to be sure, but I'd guess that the Mendeleev bio probably mentioned the abiotic theory as a quirk, rather than a substantive matter, and Hershbach's main other source, once he got interested in the matter, was an "iconoclastic" astrophysicist rather than a chemist or historian of chemistry.

Michael Meo - 3/26/2005

Just a comment on the allusion made, Mr Dresner, to the fact that the Nobel-Prize-winning chemist here has an interest in the history of science.
In many fields of scholarly endeavor, science among them these days, there are a lot of participants, with varying capacity to contribute. The question becomes how to distinguish among all these contributors -- how many of them are serious and new?
The writer of these lines in neither, but I can say from personal experience that a very high percentage of the most accomplished of the investigoators in scientific fields are quite interested in the history of their field. This despite the fact -- perhaps even because of it -- that their own training prepared them for research in large measure by stripping away the history behind each advance and focussing pretty severely on the advancing edge of research results.
It is not unusual, rather the rule than the exception, that a highly successful scientist is drawn to an examination of the history of his field.