Saturday, January 15, 2011

So where does oil really come from?

We were told a lot of things when we were young that actually never make sense, but we believed them no matter what. My favorite is if you are bitten by a rabid animal, you receive vaccine with a giant needle directly into your stomach and it really hurts. And they repeat this treatment over the next 21 days. Actually, you get an injection under the skin of your abdomen, and it hardly hurts. Another example is my mother told me if my fingers are frostbitten, I should rub my hands in snow. This would be analogous to getting a burn, then holding a match under the area to make it feel better. A third, and the most common, “fact” is oil results from billions of years of compressed vegetation, single-cell organisms and, most interesting, dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs, hence Sinclair Oil Co.’s symbol is a dinosaur. Recently I asked a chemist where oil comes from. He looked at me as though I were an idiot and said it comes from dinosaurs, of course.


I now know the first two suppositions are untrue and would like to consider the questions: Where does oil come from? And what might be its real purpose for our planet?

So I am driving down Route K in a 1991 Jeep Grand Wagoneer getting 11 miles per gallon and am grateful we are not running out of oil and, thus, gasoline. On that rare occasion when I am forced to leave the safety of Columbia, I notice thousands of cars and trucks on the highway. I realize this scene is magnified thousands of times, not including the millions of cars soon to be driven in China, and it seems this precious mass of flammable hydrocarbon extracted from squeezed dinosaurs and decayed plants might soon be exhausted. I then remembered that, during my lifetime, there have been yet-unproved predictions that in the next 10 or 20 or 30 years we will run out of oil. So I have begun to question the real origin of this vital energy source. Before we began consuming this fuel in large amounts, it actually seeped to the surface in places like Oklahoma.

Then my bean sprout-stimulated brain focused on the fact that the center of our planet contains a giant ball of molten metal, mostly made of iron, that is believed to be spinning faster than the Earth itself. With a diameter of 1,500 miles, it generates such great forces that unimaginable temperatures and pressures are realized. It provides heat to the Earth and is believed to be responsible for the magnetic fields. So, it appears we are really a giant spaceship, partially fueled by amazing phenomena that most of us have barely noticed.

Recently a small number of scientists have suggested this oil is abiogenic, meaning hydrocarbons of purely inorganic origin exist in the Earth’s interior and are generated from the Earth itself. They often come to the surface where tectonic plates come together. A 2002 article in a prestigious journal described how Russian scientists were able to produce hydrocarbons from elements present in the center of the Earth, including iron and calcium carbonate, under temperatures and pressures believed to be found in the Earth’s mantle. They felt these experiments provided the science for the genesis of hydrocarbons and the origin of petroleum.

As we explore outer space, life in other terrestrial bodies is proving hard to find. Apparently we on Earth have the equivalent of the perfect storm that provides the essential components necessary for diverse life forms. There is the nitrogen cycle, the water vapor cycle and the very convenient plant/animal production of carbon dioxide and oxygen. We need oxygen, which the plants give off, and we give off carbon dioxide, which the plants use for photosynthesis. If oil is generated by the heat and pressure of this spinning mass of liquid iron, then perhaps it, too, serves a greater purpose than propelling my giant car down Route K.

This brings me the classic book written by Theodor Seuss Geisel called “Horton Hears a Who.” In this fairytale story, the large ears of Horton the elephant allow him to hear the calls for help from a tiny planet in danger of being destroyed. Of course, everyone laughs at him, and they even place him in restraints because of his continued warning about the plight of this small planet and the Who citizens of Whoville. He warns them that if they cannot be heard, they might be boiled in Beezelnut oil, an unpleasant experience I hope to avoid.

I would not have written this article — I risk the nickname “Horton” for the rest of my life — if I hadn’t recently met a very smart and respected scientist. I will not mention his name so as not to destroy his long and prominent career. After a brief introduction, I blurted out, “So where does oil come from?” He answered without hesitation: “Of course it does not come from dinosaurs. It is generated from deep within the Earth, and some believe it comes to the surface where the tectonic plates touch. This is well known in Russia, and they always find oil if they drill deep enough.”

He provided for me the scientific article regarding the genesis of hydrocarbons and the origin of petroleum.

This really bright scientist agreed with me until I moved into the next layer of critical thinking. Since this giant ball bearing-like spinning object must interface with something, perhaps the production of oil serves a more useful purpose, such as providing lubrication of the spinning ball bearing. I then actually heard the sound of his eyeballs rolling upward and back, a sound I have often heard when explaining this theory.

So, with the candor of Horton, I ask the question: If we are sucking out this oil at an ever-increasing rate, might this upset the delicate balance of the spinning molten ball, increasing friction and leading to cataclysmic results such as generating more heat, altering Earth’s axis or contributing to unstable tectonic plates (earthquakes)? This experiment has been carried out many times by slowly withdrawing oil from a two-cycle engine. It is not pretty.

There, I have said it. Think about it. When I explained the theory to my daughter, she said, “Perhaps it is time to find the hole to the center of the Earth and start putting the oil back.”

My daughter is never wrong.

Eddie Adelstein is an associate professor of pathology at MU.

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