Does Deep Earth Host Untapped Fuel?

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 A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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