Does Deep Earth Host Untapped Fuel?

Thomas Gold was not your typical radical. Far from being a mad scientist, he was a brilliant professor of astronomy at Cornell University, but he succeeded in driving many others mad with theories that flew in the face of conventional wisdom.

His most controversial idea was among his last, and geologists and petroleum experts around the world still rage against Gold for suggesting they were dead wrong in their understanding of how oil and gas are formed in the Earth's crust.

Now, a couple of decades after Gold first suggested that hydrocarbons are formed deep underground by geological processes and not just below the surface by biological decay, there is increasing evidence that he may have been on to something.

If he was wrong, he may have erred only in taking his idea too far. Gold argued that all hydrocarbons are formed in the intense pressure and high heat near the Earth's mantle, around 100 miles under the ground. If he was right, it means the finite limits of the resources that power our cities and our factories and our vehicles have been vastly overstated.

The Heat and Squeeze Technique

Oil and gas fields are continually replenished by hydrocarbons manufactured far below the Earth, he argued. So there is no fuel crisis. As long as the Earth grinds along on its orbit around the sun, hydrocarbons will continue to be produced, and we can all roll along with no fear of running out of gas.

It should be said at this point that virtually no experts believe that to be the case. But several prestigious organizations have found evidence that methane, the main component of natural gas, can indeed be formed under conditions like those found deep in the Earth.

Researchers at the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, D.C., Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Harvard University, Argonne National Laboratory and Indiana University in South Bend have joined forces to see if they can replicate the geological processes that Gold claimed would produce hydrocarbons.

And the evidence so far suggests that methane, at least, can be produced independent of biological materials. When such common materials as iron oxide, calcite and water are squeezed under pressures more than 100,000 times those found at sea level and heated up to 2700 degrees Fahrenheit, methane does form.

That's very close to conditions found 100 miles under the ground. But it's not likely to convince many that Gold was right.

"All we've done is show experimentally that at the pressure at the Earth's mantle and pretty high temperatures you can indeed make methane," says Henry Scott, a physics and geology professor at Indiana University and lead author of a report on the research in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scott is pretty sure of that because he's seen it with his own eyes, thanks to a magnificent machine. A diamond anvil, which squeezes material between two diamonds, was used to simulate the pressures found deep within the Earth. And since a microscope can see through the diamonds, the results could be witnessed in real time.

And those results, Scott says, are quite compelling.

"Gold said that when you squeeze things down at very high pressures, the basic chemistry can change," he says. "That's exactly what we are doing."

Scott says he wasn't very optimistic when he first started working with the diamond anvil while at Carnegie. He says it was a slow day on a Friday afternoon when he decided to take some minerals and subject them to enormous pressures and high temperatures.

"I expected nothing to happen," he says. "But sure enough, it formed methane. It was a bit of a shock."

Uncertain Resource

Lawrence Livermore picked up at that point and found that methane production was most productive at 900 degrees Fahrenheit and 70,000 atmospheres of pressure. That's still hot, and it's still deep, but it suggests that methane may be abundant throughout the planet.

Like Gold, Livermore may have carried it a bit too far when it suggested in a news release that "These reserves could be a virtually inexhaustible source of energy for future generations."

There's a problem here. No one is going to drill a well 100 miles into the Earth. Even five or six miles is a really deep well.

"It's not even foreseeable that we would try to drill down to it," Scott says.

But there is a possibility that some of those methane deposits, if they really do exist deep within the Earth, may find their own way to the surface, following weaknesses in the crust, for example.

That's what Tommy Gold said would happen.

A few years ago, Sweden bought into that, big time. Officials there began drilling a deep well in a formation that Gold said could contain hydrocarbons that would be clearly of a non-biological origin. That would prove him right.

The newspaper I was working for in those days packed me off to Sweden to see what they were finding. Unfortunately, they weren't finding much.

They never found Gold's postulated gusher. But maybe Scott has. Not deep within the Earth. In a diamond anvil, where methane was produced just the way Gold said it would be.

Tommy Gold died last year. He would have loved this.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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