Russian research has shown that the Earth doesn’t need dinosaurs to produce oil
By Lawrence Solomon
Do dead dinosaurs fuel our cars? The assumption that they do, along with other dead matter thought to have formed what are known as fossil fuels, has been an article of faith for centuries. Our geologists are taught fossil fuel theory in our schools; our energy companies search for fossil fuels by divining where the dinosaurs lay down and died. Sooner or later, we will run out of liquefied dinosaurs and be forced to turn to either nuclear or renewable fuels, virtually everyone believes.
Except in Russia and Ukraine. What is to us a matter of scientific certainty is by no means accepted there. Many Russians and Ukrainians — no slouches in the hard sciences — have since the 1950s held that oil does not come exclusively, or even partly, from dinosaurs but is formed below the Earth’s 25-mile deep crust. This theory — first espoused in 1877 by Dmitri Mendeleev, who also developed the periodic table — was rejected by geologists of the day because he postulated that the Earth’s crust had deep faults, an idea then considered absurd. Mendeleev wouldn’t be vindicated by his countrymen until after the Second World War when the then-Soviet Union, shut out of the Middle East and with scant petroleum reserves of its own, embarked on a crash program to develop a petroleum industry that would allow it to fend off the military and economic challenges posed by the West.
Today, Russians laugh at our peak oil theories as they explore, and find, the bounty in the bowels of the Earth. Russia’s reserves have been climbing steadily — according to BP’s annual survey, they stood at 45 billion barrels in 2001, 69 billion barrels in 2004, and 80 billion barrels of late, making Russia an oil superpower that this year produced more oil than Saudi Arabia. Some oil auditing firms estimate Russia’s reserves at up to 200 billion barrels. Despite Russia’s success in exploration, most of those in the west who have known about the Russian-Ukrainian theories have dismissed them as beyond the Pale. This week, the Russian Pale can be found awfully close to home.
In a study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden and the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington joined colleagues at the Lomonosov Moscow State Academy of Fine Chemical Technology in publishing evidence that hydrocarbons can be produced 40 to 95 miles beneath the surface of the Earth. At these depths — in what’s known as Earth’s Upper Mantle — high temperatures and intense pressures combine to generate hydrocarbons. The hydrocarbons then migrate toward the surface of the Earth through fissures in the Earth’s crust, sometimes feeding existing pools of oil, sometimes creating entirely new ones. According to Sweden’s Royal Institute, “fossils of animals and plants are not necessary to generate raw oil and natural gas. This result is extremely radical as it means that it will be much easier to find these energy sources and that they may be located all over the world.”
The Institute’s lead author, Vladimir Kutcherov, Professor at the KTH Department of Energy Technology, is even more brash at the implications of his findings: “With the help of our research we even know where oil could be found in Sweden!” he delights. Kutcherov’s technique involves dividing the world into a fine-meshed grid that maps cracks (or migration channels) under the Earth’s crust, through which the hydrocarbons can bubble up to the surface. His advice: Drill where the cracks meet. Doing this, he predicts, will dramatically reduce the likelihood of dry wells. Kutcherov expects the success rate of drillers to more than triple, from 20% to 70%, saving billions in exploration costs while opening up vast new areas of the planet — most of which has never been deemed to have promise — to exploration.
The Nature study follows Kutcherov’s previous work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that created hydrocarbons out of water, calcium carbonate and iron — products in the Earth’s mantle. By superheating his ingredients in a pressure chamber at 30,000 times atmospheric pressure, simulating the conditions in the Earth’s mantle, Kutcherov’s alchemy converted 1.5% of his concoction into hydrocarbons — gases such as methane as well as components of heavier oils. The implication of this research, which suggests that hydrocarbons are continuously generated through natural processes? Petroleum is a sustainable resource that will last as long as Planet Earth.