October 10, 2010
Sustainable Oil Production?By John McLaughlin
Who would have thought the current controversy over man-made global warming could lead to significant rethinking of the entire climate change phenomenon and, as an unintended consequence, shatter another environmental group-think error involving sustainable oil production? Stick with me here. We need to review some history first.
Climate change alarmists, seeking to bolster their theory of the hypothetical properties of carbon dioxide to foster man-made global warming, devised the concept of radiant energy balance. The problem is that all such concepts to date specify that solar radiation as the primary source of energy for Earth's climate system. Unfortunately, not only is this fundamentally flawed science, but it has made it difficult to fully explain variations in ocean temperatures causing such well-known regional phenomena as the Southern Oscillation and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation,.
Any correct science model of physical phenomena must include all variables and constants. Missing from the current models is the heat input originating from the molten material forming the core of our planet and upon which the thin crust floats. A Canadian engineer estimates that this core heat could range from 75% to nearly 100% of that received on earth originating from the sun. So why ignore something of such potential magnitude? Because core heat flow remains difficult to precisely quantify. Not only is little really known about the source of that heat, but its impact on climate appears discontinuous due to the movement of tectonic plates forming the crust.
However, as more and more scientists begin to realize what has been overlooked, focus is shifting to theories proposed over the last couple of decades which may provide the key to not only explain certain climate change phenomena, but also could lead to new conclusions about petroleum production. What is that key? It involves recognition of the potential source of the heat -- a nuclear fission reactor at or near the very center of the planet.
Current conventional wisdom holds that petroleum products result from accumulation of ancient biomass. Oil is said to form from preserved remains of prehistoric algae and zooplankton through a process called diagenesis.
In the late 19th century, Dmitri Mendeleev, renowned Russian chemist and inventor who achieved great fame when he proposed the first version of a periodic table of elements, studied petroleum hydrocarbons. He concluded that hydrocarbons originated from carbon deposits in the depths of the earth, perhaps dating back to the formation of the planet, and could be formed by chemical combination under suitable temperatures and pressures without need for biomass. Astronomical observations of vast amounts of methane on other planets and moons (such on Saturn's Titan) -- obviously formed without the benefit of biomass -- supported this theory.
Such observations prompted Thomas Gold (1920-2004), an astronomy professor at Cornell University, to conclude that since petroleum and its component hydrocarbons were present across the entire universe, including in meteorites and captured interplanetary dust, there was no reason to believe that only on Earth could they come from a biological origin. Further, he pondered a mystery about helium, one of the essential elements of the universe, present in trace amounts everywhere in nature yet never chemically combining like, say, hydrogen and oxygen do to form water. Yet the only place on Earth where helium is ever found in abundance is with pools of petroleum underground.
Thus, Gold theorized that oil and gas were born out of the Big Bang and trapped in the Earth 4.5 billion years ago in randomly dispersed molecular form. But the intense heat of Earth's volcanic core "sweats them out" of the rocks that contain them, sending petroleum compounds and helium migrating upward through the porous deep Earth because they are more fluid and weigh less. Gold believed that in a region between 10 and 300 kilometers deep, the hydrocarbons nourished vast colonies of microbes, where all of earthly life began and where today, a vastly greater mass of living things exists than on the surface of the planet. The migrating oil and gas swept up the biological wreckage of this life as they percolated upward, together with molecules of helium, all of which eventually became trapped and concentrated in near-surface reservoirs where oil is usually found.
When, in the late 1970s, Gold discovered that major oil-producing regions in the Middle East and southeast Asia were defined by large-scale patterns in surface geology and topography, such as deep fault lines, he proposed a drilling project at Lake Siljan in central Sweden near a large meteor crater. While the project found an oily sludge at about 20,000 feet, Gold could not convince critics that it came from mantle flow. A second bore hole also discovered oil, but it too failed to provide convincing proof of Gold's theory.
Meanwhile, geologists in the Soviet Union were well along in formulating similar abiogenic hypotheses of oil production. In 1970, they began a major drilling project on the Kola Peninsula, near the Norwegian border, seeking a better understanding of the earth's crust. Scientists expected to find a geologic zone, known to exist because of seismic recordings, marking a transition between granite and denser basalt, which would add credence to abiogenic theory. Instead, to their surprise, they found a layer of metamorphic rock (rock which has been intensively reworked by heat and pressure) extending about three to six miles beneath the surface. This rock had been thoroughly fractured and surprisingly saturated with water at depths where free water should not be found.
Three other big surprises came from the project. First, the Russians found a menagerie of microscopic fossils -- 24 distinct species of plankton microfossils as deep as four miles below the surface -- covered with carbon and nitrogen rather than the typical limestone or silica. Despite the harsh environment of heat and pressure once thought impossible to sustain life, the microscopic remains were remarkably intact. A second surprise was how quickly temperatures rose as the borehole deepened. At just 12 km (approximately seven miles) down, temperatures exceeded 350o F at pressures where rocks began to act more like a plastic than a solid. The borehole had a tendency to flow closed whenever the drill bit was pulled out for replacement -- the factor which ultimately halted all progress in 1992. Finally, the Russians complained of mud flowing out of the hole described as "boiling" with hydrogen. Where did that come from?
Spurred on by the Russian findings and a 1990 discovery of crude oil in a six-kilometer-deep well drilled in long-presumed oil-free granite of central Sweden (which he viewed as only explainable by migrating petroleum), Gold postulated an inexhaustible supply of petroleum constantly percolating outward from Earth's volcanic core. Convinced that he was onto something significant, Gold published his theory in a 1992 paper: "The Deep Hot Biosphere," followed seven years later by a book with the same name. However, as skeptics of man-made global warming would appreciate, some geologists were so incensed by Gold's ideas that they petitioned to have the government remove all mention of it from the nation's libraries. Gold called the action "an effort at book-burning, pure and simple," but it had the desired effect of discrediting his work.
Now it appears that Gold may indeed have been correct about abiogenic oil production. He just did not correctly conceive of another means by which it could occur. J. Marvin Herndon, an American scientist with degrees in physics and nuclear chemistry, concluded that the conventional wisdom of a rock shell (the mantle) surrounding a hot fluid core could not, at the temperature and pressure at the center of the Earth, sustain long-term convectional heat transfer. Instead, beginning in 1993, Herndon published the first of a series of scientific articles revealing the background, feasibility, and evidence of a nuclear fission reactor, called the georeactor, at Earth's center. The georeactor could provide the energy source for heating Earth's core. In addition, the nuclear reaction would provide the atoms needed for petroleum production, maintain earth's geomagnetic field (including solving riddles of geomagnetic field variability), and produce large quantities of deep-Earth helium.
While other scientists have proposed similar ideas, Herndon described a surprisingly large georeactor inside Earth's 2,400-km core consisting of a uranium sub-core surrounded by a shell -- all approximately 24 km (17 miles) in diameter -- containing fission products and products of radioactive decay which form "a slurry or a fluid." Such a slurry would sustain convection in the microgravity environment within the shell allowing lighter (low atomic number) fission products, including carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and helium to flow outward while heavier actinides remain to sustain the critical mass needed for continuing fission.
Thus, given the heat and pressure environment of the outer core and surrounding mantle, it becomes no great scientific leap to postulate (as did Mendeleev) molecular bonding of the elemental carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen into simple molecules of methane, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen dioxide (water). The simple molecules, along with free helium isotopes and hydrogen, would continue to rise upward, migrating within the near-liquid lower crust. There, following the scenario laid out by Thomas Gold nearly twenty years ago, the molecules would settle in reservoirs, forming the sources of petroleum with an organic fingerprint and accompanying helium found today -- providing a renewable and virtually inexhaustible supply.
Thus, as researchers dig deeper into sources of climate change, we must seriously consider the concept of a molten Earth core fed by nuclear waste from a georeactor at its center emitting heat as well as the elements to form hydrocarbons creating petroleum. With great heat (including an abundance of CO2) escaping the crust by mechanisms such as hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor triggering major events such as El Niño ocean warming, we may be getting closer to climate change truth than the mythology of "man-made climate disruption."