Horsehead Nebula in the Constellation Orion

For the past century or more geologists and chemists have explained that hydrocarbons (fossil fuels, crude oil, natural gas etc.) are a natural biological phenomenon. On our planet they are said to be the leftover organic material from plants and land and marine animals and other forms of life that died and decayed hundreds of millions of years ago and then put under high pressure and temperature by the continuous movement of the Earth’s crust.

For example, one source says: “Hydrocarbon generation is the natural result of the maturation of buried organic matter…Organic matter undergoes changes in composition with increasing burial depth and temperature….Petroleum hydrocarbons exists as gaseous, liquid, and solid phases, depending on temperature, pressure, burial time, and composition of the system.”

As a result, a conclusion can be drawn that since there is a fixed amount of organic material buried under the Earth’s crust, there must be a fixed amount of hydrocarbons and eventually we will burn them all.  This is the starting point for the Peak Oil advocates.

In the first half of the 20th century an alternative origin for hydrocarbons was presented called abiogenic petroleum. (See Wikipedia entry here.)  Popularized primarily by Russian and Ukrainian scientists, this theory proposed that hydrocarbons have an inorganic origin.

According to the abiogenic hypothesis, petroleum was formed from deep carbon deposits, perhaps dating back to the formation of our planet. Indeed there may be a great deal more petroleum on Earth than commonly thought, and that petroleum may originate from carbon-bearing fluids that migrate upward from the mantle.

in 1951 Nikolai Kudryavtsev became the first modern scientist to suggest that petroleum is not biological but antibiotic. He argued that no petroleum resembling the chemical composition of natural crude oil has ever been made from plant material in the laboratory under conditions resembling those in nature.

Later an American astronomer, Thomas Gold, supported this idea based on the data being collected about the extent of carbon in our galaxy.

Gold’s thesis is simple. Hydrocarbons have been in existence since the earliest times of the Universe, and are part of the process of planetary formation. Their constituents, hydrogen and carbon, originated in the “primordial soup” from which Earth was formed.  Earth’s methane and petroleum, Gold says, are abiogenic – without biological origin. (Hydrocarbon Fuels Aren’t Fossils)

In the 1970s astronomers, using spectroscopy, for the first time were able to conduct a chemical analysis of the dark dust lanes in interstellar space in our galaxy as well as in the space between other galaxies. To their surprise they found these dust lanes were filled with carbon and hydrogen molecules  Hydrocarbons have also been found on meteorites. From this analysis they determined carbon is the 4th most common element in the Universe after hydrogen, helium and oxygen.

Since the 1970s further research has established that carbon and abiogenic hydrocarbons are commonplace in the Universe. (Cosmic Carbon Chemistry: From the Interstellar Medium to the Early Earth)  In addition, in the past decade ethane and methane lakes and rivers have been found and mapped on Saturn’s moon Titan. (Chunks of Frozen Hydrocarbons May be Floating on Titan’s Lakes)

Now, in the past month we have the amazing news that the Horsehead Nebula, 1300 light years away in the Constellation Orion, may be a “gigantic petroleum refinery”.

Astronomers have detected, for the first time, the interstellar molecule C3H+, in our galaxy, which belongs to the hydrocarbon family and is thus part of major energy resources of our planet, i.e. petroleum and natural gas. “We observed the operation of a natural refinery of petroleum of gigantic size”, said astronomer Jérôme Pety..the scientists were able to detect 30 molecules in the region, including many small hydrocarbons, the smallest molecules that compose petroleum and natural gas. The researchers were surprised by the unexpectedly high levels of hydrocarbons. “The nebula contains 200 times more hydrocarbons than the total amount of water on Earth!” (Horsehead Nebula Found to Cloak a Vast Interstellar Chemistry Lab)

See also Horsehead Nebula could be giant petroleum refinery

According to the astronomers these dense clouds of gases and dust contain unexpectedly high levels of the propynylidyne ion C3H+, which is one of the molecules that makes up oil and natural gas on Earth. C3H+ is created when polyaromatic hydrocarbons (commonly found in coal, tar and petroleum products) are broken down by radiation. In the case of the Horsehead Nebula, the nebula would provide the gas while nearby stars offer the required radiation.

So is petroleum biotic? abiotic? or perhaps both?  What is clear, it appears to pervade our Universe.










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