Monday, July 05, 2004

The Ultimate Renewable Energy Source

Update 1: Added last paragraph, cleaned up spelling mistakes

The Economist recently carried the obituary of Dr Thomas Gold, an influential astronomer, known for successfully modeling quasars, and, less successfully, trying to beat back the model that became known, after one of his collaborator's dismissive labels, as the big bang theory.

What, apart from in the loosest conceptual sense, did he have to do the issues facing the energy industries?

Left behind him, as an orphan with uncertain prospects, is his contention that the 18th century theory that oil, gas and coal have their origins in decayed plant and animals is incorrect. Living organisms, he argued, play no role in the formation of the fossil fuels found in the Earth's crust. He pointed out that methane (natural gas) is present in comets and other planets such as on Saturn's moon Titan, where it forms most of the atmosphere. He believed that hydrogen and carbon molecules combine to form hydrocarbons under the conditions of massive pressure and temperature found deep under the Earth's surface.

Vaclav Smil, in Energy at the Crossroads, begs that we consider seriously the possibility that this theory is possibly true. Much of the work on it was done in the old Soviet Union beginning in the nineteen-fifties, where it has been subject to much review and empirical testing. Smil was mostly trained in Prague, so he has a greater knowledge of Russian thinking than other scientists, although Peter Odell, the most optimistic of the prominent oil forecasters also mentions it.

The irony would be that if it were correct, then
...[a]s argued by the inorganic origin theorists of the Former Soviet Union – home of the world’s largest hydrocarbons’ industry. Enormous implications follow from oil and gas being renewable resources. All concerns for “scarcity” would be undermined and future oil and gas supplies at stable or falling costs could be guaranteed.
I wouldn't buy the abiotic theory yet, as it's far from being accepted by consensus scientific opinion. To my mind, it smacks of Lysenko, the uneducated peasant who tried to train wheat to grow in Siberia rather than accept the influence of "bourgeois" genetics. Did the Russians think that capitalist oil was moving inexorably towards crisis, whereas, under the leadership of the party, class-conscious Soviet oil reserves put in extra effort?

Smil reports that tests on the carbon in hydrocarbons, the C13 isotopes found in organic matter are also present. However, he says that the theory has successfully guided discovery of oil in places where conventional wisdom says it would be improbable.