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  1. I remember Dr. Gold’s theories in the 80s. They had originally been rejected when oil and gas were not found at depths he predicted. Still, if oil and gas are abiogenic (similar to methane hydrates) then doesn’t nuclear become a specialty energy source? It is far easier and cheaper to bring natural gas in plants that only require 10 people to operate? Of course, the climate issue would still be out there.

    1. @Robert Margolis

      It is far easier and cheaper to bring [burn?] natural gas in plants that only require 10 people to operate?

      You are looking at the power plant without seeing the pipeline needed to move the fuel. If you think that obtaining a site permit for a nuclear plant is complicated and includes a large number of stakeholders, take a hard look at some of the pipeline construction challenges around the country.

      I’ve natural gas fired ships are rare. It’s quite possible to build nuclear plants that use exactly the same kind of turbomachinery that makes natural gas plants so cheap and simple to operate.

      1. Didn’t the Navy get rid of their nuclear-powered cruisers in favor of gas turbines? I worked with a guy who was on one of the last crews of the Mississippi. He said the rationale was that the gas turbine ships could put to sea on a few hours’ notice. The nuclear reactors took about a day to get warmed up and ready to go. If course, they didn’t have the extended cruising time of the nukes, but if they were going into port or taking on supplies (victuals) from a tender, might as well re-fuel at the same time.

        1. @Wayne SW

          The reasons why the Navy got rid of nuclear powered cruisers and destroyers are much more complex and political than that. Maybe someday I’ll get around to writing a few posts on the topic. I gained numerous rare insights while on the Navy staff.

  2. There certainly is abiotic chemistry making hydrogen in the earth (serpentinization of ultramafic rocks) and this hydrogen can react with other minerals.  This is apparently how the H2S in hydrothermal waters comes about.  Reaction with carbonates can produce methane, but you have to have carbonates (which are sedimentary and rather scarce in volcanic zones).

    This is certainly not how the world’s deposits of oil and gas originated.  We do not find oil and gas deposits around hydrothermal zones, we find them above sedimentary rocks loaded with organic material of obviously biological origin.  Methane itself is a very stable molecule and hard to crack; it does not polymerize into heavier alkanes (look at the hoops chemical engineers have to jump through to make gas-to-liquids work).  The complex molecules in oil and coal are proof that they originated from plants.

    Last, as I like to say, if oil was abiotic it would be seeping out of every crack in the earth and every fossil beach would be a tar sand.  There is no chance of mining the Sahara for asphalt, therefore the theory is wrong.

    1. Where does the Methane on Titan (or Saturn VI), the largest moon of Saturn, come from? If only from plants, then there must be life on Titan.

      1. Methane is not that uncommon out in deep space, and it’s a simple compound with no carbon-carbon bonds. The reason it’s prevalent on Titan is because the sunlight is weak and hence Titan’s atmosphere is a low-energy, low-radiation space, which gives methane a long life. Closer in, atmospheric methane has shorter life and the hydrogen can easily be lost, or in the case of Earth of course methane gets oxidized.

      2. @Rich

        That is one of the questions that inspired Gold to come up with a different theory. He was not aware of the Russian-Ukrainian work that pre-dated his when he first started talking and writing about abiotic petroleum, but once he did learn of that prior work, he credited the authors.

      3. Where does the Methane on Titan (or Saturn VI), the largest moon of Saturn, come from?

        It’s primordial, formed in deep space and the highly-reducing environment of the atmospheres of carbon stars.  Most matter in the universe is hydrogen; you have to get to warm, rocky bodies like Earth where most of the hydrogen has been boiled off to get oxidizing conditions.

        If only from plants, then there must be life on Titan.

        Methane can form abiotically, it’s the longer hydrocarbons that are energetically uphill from methane and wouldn’t be formed in significant quantity from it.  In the case of Titan, solar UV can crack methane (much as it cracks ultra-stable CFCs on earth) and converts it to free radicals which can form complex stuff.  That is apparently why the atmosphere of Titan is largely nitrogen.

        1. @EP

          What is the solar UV flux at the distance of Titan from the sun? It’s ten times as far from the sun as the Earth, meaning that its solar energy strength is 1/100th as much as ours. That seems like a rather weak argument for the way methane behaves in Titan’s atmosphere/

          If methane is primordial and can be found in the rocks on other planets and objects in the solar system, why would it surprise anyone to find it in the rocky core and mantle of Earth?

          The idea that ultra stable — and heavy — molecules like CFC rise to the stratosphere to be cracked by UV has never been one of my favorite theories.


          1. That seems like a rather weak argument for the way methane behaves in Titan’s atmosphere/

            Methane’s lifespan in Earth’s atmosphere is only about 11 years; whatever’s on Titan has probably been around since it condensed from the primeval nebula.

            If methane is primordial and can be found in the rocks on other planets and objects in the solar system, why would it surprise anyone to find it in the rocky core and mantle of Earth?

            Because the bulk of Earth is hot enough to decompose it, as well as purge most volatiles.  On Titan, water ice is a rock; methane is quite stable there.

            The idea that ultra stable — and heavy — molecules like CFC rise to the stratosphere to be cracked by UV has never been one of my favorite theories.

            I find it curious that you would be all for the non-intuitive truth about radiation, but opine contrary to fact regarding something so easily checked.  CFCs are well-mixed in the troposphere and diffuse into the stratosphere regardless of what you believe; CFC-11 has been tracked in the stratosphere for about 6 decades now.

            I suspect the unreadable colors of that hideous web page you linked to are to prevent people from reading it.  I’m not going to bother using Domain Inspector to fix them long enough to find the BS that I know to be there.

            1. @EP

              The facts associated with CFC mixing in the atmosphere, destruction by UV, and creation of free Cl- ions in the stratosphere that then destroy O3 are of a similar nature to the fact that radiation down to a single gamma ray or beta particle emission causes permanent damage to DNA that might reveal itself several generations into the future.

              Both of those facts have been published by exceedingly credible sources and can be easily verified in an almost unlimited number of locations where the web site is not of “hideous” amateur design.

              By the way, the graph you linked to in support of your assertion that CFC-11 has been tracked in the stratosphere for 60 years isn’t terribly informative or detailed. The curve seems almost mathematically generated considering the less than smooth nature of the production and use data of the measured compound.

              I will, however, take action on your implied advice.

    2. hydrocarbon + oxygen : exothermic
      carbohydrate or alcohol – oxygen : endothermic

      So why doesn’t the decomposition material from micro-organisms make lots of alcohols? Why does leave compounds (hydrocarbons) containing no oxygen?

      1. Anaerobes don’t have free oxygen to work with.  Methane happens to be a very stable molecule (e.g. it does not contribute to photochemical smog) which makes it an energy-favorable end product for bugs which don’t have any way to oxidize it.

        Add methane to an oxygen-rich environment and methanotrophs are in bacterial heaven.

      2. Mark Your observations are spot on. The way most people make biofuels, with micro-organisms, is flawed at precisely your point: biofuels have oxygen in them, e.g., alcohols – methanol, ethanol, butanol, etc. For that reason, they are inferior as fuels to hydrocarbons refined from petroleum. That’s why biofuels can only be additives; they can not be used as 100% of the fuel in today’s engines.

        So how did nature do it (on Earth, not in space which is a completely different environment)? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but we do have some synthetic chemistry procedures that may show the way. For example, start with CO2, which one might think is in a pretty deep energy hole to dig the carbon out from the grasp of oxygen. Not if one has hydrogen, as demonstrated by Sabatier more than a century ago:

        CO2 (g) + 4H2 (g) –> CH4 (g) + 2H2O (g) + heat,

        with the right-hand side easy to separate by condensing the H2O as a liquid.

        Similarly, Fischer and Tropsh showed that if one burned coal (a reasonable approximation for solid elemental carbon) incompletely with oxygen to get carbon monoxide:

        2C (s) + O2 (g) –> 2CO (g) + heat,

        then using zeolites (a fancy name for porous metal compounds) as catalysts, one could make hydrocarbons containing an arbitrary integer number n of carbons:

        nCO (g) + (2n+1)H2 (g) –> CnH2n+2 (g) + nH2O (g) + heat.

        For n equal to or greater than 6, all the alkanes CnH2n+2 (linear chains or branched isomers) are liquids at STP, but condensing out the water as a liquid will still work since oil and water don’t mix.

        Aha, you might pounce: where do you get the H2? Not interstellar space; from water. For example, use some of the CO you got from burning coal to drive the so-called water shift reaction:

        CO (g) + H2O (g) + heat –> CO2 (g) + H2 (g),

        where the heat could come from the burning of coal that produced the CO. Thus, it takes a lot of coal to make oil (which makes it more expensive than refining it from petroleum), but if that’s all you got, then you do it for national security reasons (as was true in Germany during WW2, in South Africa during the Apartheid era, and in China today).

        As pointed out by Vince Hughes and others, making hydrogen by splitting water thermochemically is the holy grail of high-temperature nuclear reactors. One can beat petroleum in making gasoline, or diesel, or kerosene, if one can get H2 below US$1.40 per kg. Of course, it’s still not carbon free if you have to use coal as your source of carbon. My recommendation is to use, not CO2, but the syngas — H2, CO, CO2 — that one gets as an automatic by-product of making biochar by supertorrefaction. But I digress.

        Did the Earth make use of similar reactions, with porous rocks substituting for zeolites? We don’t know. But we do know that the rock burden of the Earth’s interior provides two important ingredients: (a) keeping out the free oxygen in air that would have spoiled the carbonization of biomass that produced coal; (b) provided enormous pressure that would have kept water at high density even at elevated temperatures. To drive the water-shift reaction at reasonable rates, today’s gasifiers operate above 900 Celsius and hundreds of bar of pressure. To do it in the crust of the Earth, you have to settle for lower temperatures, but can have much higher pressures. You also have much more time for slow anoxic cooking: hundreds of millions of years.

        I’m not saying that the Earth used the same exact recipe as the outline given above, substituting slow cooking for fast. I’m saying that removing oxygen in carbon compounds can be done. Biological organisms don’t know how to do it (at viable temperatures), and they settle for substances that can be solids (e.g.,carbohydrates) at normal temperatures and liquids (e.g. alcohols) even when the molecules have relatively small numbers of carbons. They don’t need to burn high-octane fuels at high rates; in fact, it’d be deadly. However, by capturing carbon dioxide out of the air, and converting it into solid and liquid forms, plants take the first important step to making fossil fuels. From plant matter, the Earth can assume control and produce coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Or, at least, that’s the party line.

  3. I see nuclear electricity and nuclear process heat as the only currently practical way to have abundant energy and a low carbon world. Since my goal is a low carbon world, I really don’t care how much oil and methane is available. The proven reserves of either oil or methane are enough to cook us all. If two or three times as much oil and methane are available, who cares?

    Net zero CO2 use is OK. Like taking CO2 from the ocean, making methanol, and burning the methanol, but taking oil and methane out of the ground is not.

    1. @martin burkle

      As noted, my goal is a world in which abundant energy isn’t seen as something that is “going away” that we need to carefully conserve by limiting our visions, hopes and actions. My view of human freedom is that it is good to be able to travel in comfort, to be able to play with your family on a speedboat on a lake, river, or bay, and to be able to fly to visit with friends, go to work or see some of the amazing sights there are to see in other places.

      That means that we need to continue devising ways to use hydrocarbons cleanly — and cheaply without fighting over them — along with other sources of available, abundant and suitable energy/power.

      Seeking to halt people from finding new ways to get oil and methane out of the ground as efficiently and economically as possible seems to be to be a path that mostly benefits those who control the currently known reserves.

  4. Dangerous musings for our environment. As a good nieghbor, if I was pulling energy out of the ground to put to use, I would look for ways that have the least amount of negative impact on my nieghborhood. But the kinds of entities that pull energy out of the ground are not motivated by nieghborhood concerns. Now imagine that John Q gets it in his head that the energy that pushes his wheels down the road is an infinitely available resource. Can we really expect GM to ignore that kind of mindset in the minds of the consumer? Forget mileage controls. Forget smaller economy sized 6 and 4 cylinder engines. Forget electric car development. Forget battery storage evolution. All pushed to the wayside in the name of profits, booty gained by the age old collusion between big oil and big auto. And consider it the death knell for nuclear energy. If fossil fuel is an unending resource, you can kiss nuclear energy goodbye.

    1. @poa

      I disagree. First of all, the developments that you mention might still be of interest to some people for reasons other than we are running out of oil. For example, I happen to like small cars because they are easier to park and drive. I like high mileage because I can travel > 600 miles before I need to stop at a fueling station. Battery development is continuing because of all of the devices that we have that run on batteries – one of the [few] things I admire Musk for is his recognition that the path for car batteries was to connect thousands of small cells identical to those used in computers.

      Nuclear advances do not depend on expensive or limited hydrocarbons. In fact, it’s a lot cheaper to build nuclear plants when fuel prices are moderate to low.

    2. POA

      I had that thought as well. If you have an infinite resource available to you and can extract and distribute it economically, why should you bother with anything else? Just go all-in with the abundant resource and not bother with the others. We kind of got a glimmer of that future with the natural gas oversupply situation. Need a power plant? Go with natural gas (assuming you have or can readily build a distribution system). Need to heat your home? Go gas. Need industrial heat and steam? Pipe in the natural gas.

      What restrains the runaway process is our cognizance of other factors. Things like environmental impact and diversity of fuel sources in the event of supply disruption (pipelines being cut or shut off for political/military reasons). With the goal of decarbonization still in play, we cannot ignore that our ecosystem is no where in balance yet with the production of GHGs and their sequestration by natural processes. Eventually you will reach an equilibrium, but that equilibrium concentration might not be terribly healthy for the human species.

      1. @Wayne SW and poa:

        The factor that you both seem to be overlooking is that uranium and thorium are virtually infinite resources that cost far less than CH4 on a heat content basis. They are easier to move because they are so energy dense, which makes them far more suitable for many distributed applications and for mobile units like those on commercial ships. They also have the cost reducing fact of zero emissions — of any kind — going for them.

        Atomic fission can compete just fine in a world with infinite hydrocarbon resources. In fact, it might win more hearts and minds because it will not be facing an opponent that has accumulated vast wealth and power by controlling artificially limited supplies of a necessary commodity.

        Finally, I have no reason to change my thoughts and hide my interest in this topic merely because there is a remote chance that the growth prospects of atomic fission will suffer because I did not adhere to the party line that hydrocarbons are limited by the total amount of biomass that decayed hundreds of millions of years ago. If abiotic oil is real, it is incredibly interesting and worth discussing. If it isn’t real, I can accept that fact and move on to something else.

        I hope that my credibility is at least partially based on my willingness to question and to learn, even in areas of “settled science.”

        1. Perhaps I should have emphasized by second paragraph more forcefully. As I said, what constraints us from going all-in on a potentially infinite resource is consideration of “other factors”. I mentioned a few (environmental impacts, assurance of a robust energy supply through fuel diversification, etc.). Energy density, as we have long discussed here, is another factor that would constrain the runaway use of one particular resource. Accessibility is another of the “other considerations. Decarbonization of the biosphere is a powerful motivator and as long as it remains a salient factor in our decision-making there will always be a push to limit the use of carbon-based fuels. So, while “infinite supply” maybe be initially alluring, it may not end up being so simple.

        2. Rod, I hope you could please re-examine the ‘settled science’ of global warming with the same willingness to question and learn.

          Similar motivations are behind the proponents of fear regarding global warming. A detailed look at some of the main actors will show the bias and motivation behind developed world action to mitigate alleged anthropogenic global warming. How convenient that restricting our lifestyles and transferring money to third world countries fits today’s liberal agenda. Needless to say it is far from ‘settled science’ as Obama, Al Gore and friends would have you believe. To be clear, we generally agree – I’m a strong advocate for nuclear, don’t like emissions from coal, and agree that nuclear can be much more economic than it currently is.

          1. @hunster

            I’m not sure you have been reading carefully. I rarely use the phrase “global warming”. I’m not a catastrophic thinker. I don’t promote the kinds of actions that the political actors that use concerns about climate change and ocean acidification to sell what I consider to be snake oil solutions.

            I am for abundance and improved lifestyles enabled by power that comes from energy collection systems that are as clean as possible with as much internalization of costs as possible.

            Developing nations need our assistance, many have legitimate historical reasons for asserting that they have not caused the problem and have never emitted anything close to the amount of combustion waste products into our global atmosphere than the residents of the developed world. My analysis indicates that one of the best ways we can help is to fully develop nuclear energy technologies like those my friends at Oklo have conceived.

  5. Rod I am an admirer and regular reader of your blog, where I can
    usually find thoughtful analyses about the energy business, especially
    in relation to nuclear power. Thus, I was dismayed to find this article on
    an abiologic and primordial origin (with the formation of the solar system)
    of fossil fuels, of which I have long been a skeptic despite my admiration
    for Tommy Gold as an innovative and creative astrophysicist.

    The reason that the traditional theory of a biological origin of fossil fuels
    holds sway is that it offers a comprehensive and self-consistent set of ideas
    that have predictive value, used by petroleum geologists to make new finds.
    The very fact that finds of rich oil fields become harder with each passing
    decade is itself an indicator, as Engineer-Poet argues, that fossil fuels are not as abundant nor as pervasive as the abiologic theory predicts. This conclusion, of course, presupposes that the relative scarcity that drives ever more invasive extraction techniques like fracking and strip mining are not some vast conspiracy of the fossil fuel industry.

    Consider coal. The traditional theory holds that rich coal beds formed about
    300 hundred million years ago during the Carboniferous Period when
    vegetation (that grew to tremendous sizes because of the high CO2 content
    then in the atmosphere) died and fell into the mud of swamp forests and were kept
    from decaying by the relative lack of free oxygen.

    Layer after layer of this material pressed deeper into the Earth over time, aided perhaps by tectonic activity, with the mean temperature and pressure increasing, respectively, by about 25 Celsius and 300 bar with every km of depth. In the case of land plants with a relatively low ratio of elemental hydrogen to carbon, at a depth of about 7 km, the temperature reached 200 Celsius, past which volatile organic compounds would be driven out of the biomass to produce a char. The contemporary equivalent process of making charcoal (at 1 bar of pressure) is called torrefaction, or slow pyrolysis. In the case of the Earth, the surrounding pressure exceeded 2000 bar and compressed the char into mineral coal.

    A larger ratio of hydrogen to carbon in the biomass, as would be the case with plankton in marine environments, increases the probability of producing organic precursors (kerogens) that result in oil and natural gas rather than coal. True petroleum requires slow anoxic “cooking” at perhaps, 100 Celsius to 150 Celsius; whereas higher temperatures break apart the heavy hydrocarbons to produce the light hydrocarbons that we call natural gas. As conventional oil and gas fields deplete, the economic incentives increase for extracting incompletely cooked kerogens in tar sands and oil shale. A whole synthetic fuels industry has risen, beginning with Germany during WW2 who had coal but no oil, using water as the source of hydrogen, the converts coal to gas or coal to liquid fuels that mimics the natural processes hypothesized by the traditional theory for the origin of fossil fuels.

    For coal, the biologic theory predicts the quality of coal, from lignite, to bituminous,
    to anthracite, increases with increasing depths at which the layers of coal are found. Tectonic activity that leads to uplift and horizontal motions destroys the strict vertical stratification predicted by the naive theory. But the overall trend exists
    and is the basis of dating the age of coal beds. Stratigraphers find the coal beds to lie between layers on rock, both sides of which can be dated by the traditional means of stratigraphy. The oldest coal beds are found to have an age of about 300 million years before the present time, far shorter than the age of the oldest rocks in the solar system (whose ages are also obtained by radioactive dating) to be 4.5 billion years. Thus, coal, at least, does not have a primordial origin. Occam’s razor suggests that neither do petroleum nor natural gas.

    1. @FShu

      I’m with you on coal and its variations from peat to lignite to bituminous to anthracite.

      That doesn’t necessarily contradict the existence of abiotic hydrocarbons with up to four times as many hydrogen atoms as carbon atoms. The Earth is a complex place that is often not explained with Occam’s philosophical musings.

      1. The limit of Occam’s razor is our knowledge – Occam’s razor, the full form, is that you should take the simplest explanation that fits ALL the facts. . . but often, people err because they don’t know that they don’t know all the facts yet, and once those additional facts become known, it’s clear the previous conclusion was wrong.

        1. @Jeff S says September 1, 2016 at 6:07 PM
          “but often, people err because they don’t know that they don’t know all the facts yet”

          That’s when you should apply Rumsfield’s razor:
          “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” …Ya know?

      2. Rod Please forget my misplaced comment about Occam’s razor. My real points are (a) coal is without dispute of biological origin, and (b) there are proven synthesis pathways to get from coal to oil and natural gas. What is the rationale, other than wishful thinking, for believing that the Earth did not find similar pathways?

        My real concern, however, is that you as one of our most eloquent and knowledgeable experts on the virtues of nuclear power in the fight against climate change would lose your hard-earned credibility by pushing a highly unlikely theory that the true supply of oil and natural gas is virtually inexhaustible. The responses of many others on this thread seem to reflect the same sentiment. Please consider carefully the greater implications of the advice that you sought from this thoughtful readership.

        1. @FShu

          Though I am concerned about climate change and know that nuclear energy is a vital tool for addressing it, that is not the only reason that I so strongly advocate the greatly expanded use of nuclear energy. I hope that you also consider that I am a reasonably eloquent and knowledgable expert on the virtues of access to abundant energy, the need for increased prosperity that is more widely distributed around the world, the almost criminal way that rich and powerful people have expended the lives of others in the quest for the Prize of Oil, Money and Power and the fact that the gospel of scarcity has been a major inhibition for the majority of people for too many years.

          The Earth might very well have “found” synthesis pathways that produce hydrocarbons from the same kinds of biological materials that produced coal. That does not logically imply that those were the ONLY pathways for producing complex hydrocarbons. If methane is a primordial compound that exists in abundance in universe and has been detected on other planets and moons in our solar system, what is the logic behind asserting that the Earth’s methane and petroleum is uniquely biological in origin? I know that the Earth is our home and that it has a number of features that have not yet been found on other celestial bodies, but it is a planet that was created out of the same materials available elsewhere.

          Thomas Gold was apparently brilliant, well-respected geophysicist who crossed disciplines in a number of different areas to ask hard questions based on looking at the same facts through a different lens. He met with resistance from the specialists that focused on learning everything there was to learn from the teachers and writers within the discipline that he was questioning.

          Sometimes, thoughtful people with a broader view introduce questions that should be asked instead of simply continuing to refine what is already firmly known and accepted by “everyone.”

          1. Rod This is my last comment on this subject because the debate is wandering off from its astrophysical origins and reaching a point of diminishing returns.

            Through the work of Carl Sagan (another scientific maverick whom Gold courageously championed), it is widely accepted by astrophysicists that methane was plentifully abundant on the early Earth as a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). There is no other way to reconcile the evidence for primitive lifeforms (prokaryotic cells) and the presence of liquid water with the young Sun’s having a luminosity that was only 70% of its present value. The problem goes under the name of the “faint young Sun paradox.” GHG contributions from CO2 and water vapor were not enough to explain the discrepancy, and Sagan (whom I also knew and admired) proposed in the 1970s that methane CH4 must have been abundantly present to have provided the missing GHG warming. But as the prokaryotic cells gradually evolved forms, i.e., blue-green algae, with the ability to perform modern photosynthesis, the atmosphere became oxidizing, and in a relatively short geological span of time the CH4 was removed from the atmosphere (by oxidation into CO2 and H2O as happens today to fugitive emissions from fracking for natural gas and oil). With the removal of the warming provided by CH4 and a still relatively faint Sun, the Earth cooled globally and catastrophically, entering a phase called “snowball Earth”. Although hypothetical and still somewhat controversial, the existence of a snowball phase of the Earth’s history is supported by the finding of “dropstones” from glaciers even on the equator of the Earth that date to the period under question. Alternation between periods of extreme cold and partial warming finally ended in the pre-Cambrian era when multicellular organisms became common enough and complex enough, with the mature Sun having reached close to 100% of its present luminosity, to initiate the “Cambrian explosion” that ultimately resulted in the modern biological world of plants, animals, and fungi.

            The destruction of primitive CH4 by O2 on a planet close to the Sun is almost pre-ordained because oxygen as an element is much more abundant on the rocky planets of the inner solar system than carbon. Cosmically, oxygen is the third most abundant element in the Universe, after hydrogen and helium, but oxygen is roughly half of all the atoms on Earth, wih silicon and iron coming in second and third. The process of planet formation in the solar nebula leaves planets interior to the so-called “snowline” having very little carbon and hydrogen, even though carbon is cosmically the fourth most abundant element in the local universe. The outer planets and their moons that formed beyond the “snowline” out of cometary precursors are completely different from the inner planets and their moons that formed out of asteroidal precursors, so the presence of methane and other hydrocarbons in the atmosphere of Titan says virtually nothing about their fate in the inner solar system.

            I suppose there is a chance that chance that some primordial CH4 might have survived oxidation in the solid Earth. But I suspect that any zone of CH4 stability between the O2 of the atmosphere and the high temperatures of silicate rocks in the deep Earth is probably pretty thin. For immediate human consumption, there is plenty of methane frozen as clathrates in the cold of the deep oceans, as well as energy-hungry nations eager to tap this “resource.” But as responsible citizens concerned about future generations, we should discourage this kind of “selfishness,” don’t you think?

            1. @FShu

              Thank you for the fascinating discussion. I hope that you and the other readers who would prefer for discussion to move on to other topics understand that I am still interested in pursuing Gold’s deep hot biosphere theory as at least a partial explanation of the fact that there is a large quantity of methane and petroleum in the earth’s crust.

              We obviously know that material exists; we’ve been extracting and burning it for more than 150 years.

              It is still an open question how much of the material exists. Also open questions are improvements in location, extraction, distribution and reducing the negative environmental effects.

              I don’t see how knowledge of an almost infinite quantity of valuable raw material will harm future generations as long as we take care to provide proper incentives for using the material with ever lower environmental impact.

  6. I don’t think we’d ever completely stop using geologic hydrocarbons (a term I sometimes use because as Rod points out, there is dispute about whether they are truly ‘fossil’ fuels or not, but there’s no dispute they are hydrocarbons that are extracted from the earth), but I think we need to get their use down to a *sustainable level* (long term, that means we use them at an equilibrium with the rate that the CO2 is sequestered by natural processes such as plant growth, corral growth, plankton growth, weathering of certain minerals, etc; shorter term we need to get them down to values less than the rate of natural sequestration so that nature can ‘catch-up’ and remove CO2 back to safer levels).

    Of course, this being Atomic Insights, I have to ask – even if geologic hydrocarbons are fairly abundant, aren’t the costs of extraction (especially as we have to dig potentially ever deeper, or drill deeper ocean wells, etc), and transportation of fossil fuels, on a per-unit-energy basis, long term, going to be higher than extraction, processing, and distribution of nuclear fuel because of that whole millions-of-times-higher-energy density?

    From that basis alone, it would seem like fossil fuels would be limited to applications where they are really hard to replace (Aviation and long-haul vehicle transportation comes to mind; emergency electric generators; small high power power-tools (chainsaws, weedwhackers, lawnmowers, etc), and mobile industrial equipment (backhoes, bulldozers, excavators, loggers, etc)

    1. Rod Thank you for a gracious reply to my last comment. It is such a pleasure to discuss issues with people who are pro-nuclear on this website and others. As a rule, they are intelligent, open-minded, and supportive of the common cause to find a solution to the twin problems of global climate change and energy poverty. Thus, I will make one more comment to give you and the others on this discussion board more ideas to test the hypothesis that there are yet to be discovered hydrocarbons, apart from proven reserves and the methane clathrates that exist in the cold at the bottom of the ocean floor.

      We agree that the crust of the Earth, which is perhaps 1% of the volume of the interior, is the only plausible reservoir of large amounts of such hydrocarbons. The reasoning is as follows. Because of variations in the thickness of the crust, the temperature at the boundary where the crust meets the upper mantle varies between 200 Celsius and 400 Celsius. By coincidence (?), this is also the range where the experiments of my research group with immersing biomass under molten salts show that volatiles out-gassed from charring organic matter will not be decomposed into CO, CO2, H2, and H2O. The upper mantle of the earth is convective, so any primordial hydrocarbons in the mantle would have experienced continual dredging down to layers of silicate and oxide rocks at high enough temperatures (> 400 Celsius) that would have destroyed them. This result is consistent with hydrocarbons not being discharged from volcanoes. Only, in the solid crust, between the free O2 in the atmosphere above and the hot molten silicate and oxide rocks below, would CH4 and more complex hydrocarbons have a chance of survival.

      Of course, the local thickness of the crust varies on geological time scales. For example, the events associated with the formation and dissolution of pangaea from 300 million years (Ma) ago to 175 Ma ago apparently led to the Permian extinction when great arcs of volcanoes at the boundaries of plates spewed out magma and noxious gases that, according to the Wikipedia, killed 96% of the marine species and 70% of the animal vertebrates on Earth.

      As to when the atmosphere of the Earth became oxidizing, at a time of 2 Ga plus or minus 0.3 Ga, the following events occurred: (a) the laying down of “red beds” as iron rusted and precipitated all over the world; (b) the earliest instance of “snowball Earth;” (c) the Oklo fission reactor became possible because water-insoluble UO2 became water soluble UO3 and could flow into a nearly spherical rock formation to reach criticality (because natural uranium was then about 3% U-235, an “enriched” value used in some modern LWRs).

      My personal estimate of the maximum amount of fossil fuels left in the Earth comes from the following observation. Before the laying down of coal beds 300 Ma ago, CO2 in the atmosphere stood at 4000 ppm. Today, it is at approximately 400 ppm. The difference in implied carbon still exists somewhere on Earth. Hopefully, it has mostly been sequestered into carbonate rock, but conceivably it largely remains in “fossil fuels” yet to be discovered and exploited. If we simply burn this amount without geological sequestration, we will “restore” the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to 4000 ppm, when the mean temperature was 12 Celsius higher than the average before the industrial revolution. (BTW, 12 Celsius in 3.8 doublings, from 280 ppm to 4000 ppm, is my persoal guesstimate of the temperature sensitivity of greenhouse warming, i.e., a little more than 3 Celsius per doubling of atmospheric CO2. The theory of global warming is based on a lot more than just computer simulations.) Do we really want to encourage such ambitions, far beyond the most “rosy” projections of the fossil-fuel industry? Or should we pursue strategies that can not only halt the further accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and even roll it back to 350 ppm, the “consensus” level for what is safe for human civilization for the foreseeable future?

  7. Maybe, there is a little something to the idea of hydrocarbon fuels on the Earth coming from something other than living things. I didn’t see this one mentioned in the discussion.


    Apparently, there is lots of methane on the ocean floor. Seems like Hydrogen and Carbon are kind of common. Seems like there’s all sorts of ways they could get together. Maybe, they’ll use nuclear power to make it some day.

  8. According to Wikipedia petroleum contains compounds with a porphyrin ring (same kind of ring as in chlorophyll) which also supports the conventional theory on its biological origin.

    If I am not mistaken one of the purposes of the Very High Temperature Reactor is to produce hydrogen from water via thermochemical cycles using heat from the reactor. Although hydrogen is a difficult fuel to store, transport, and use, we could possibly react it with captured CO2 to produce hydrocarbon fuels:
    H2 + CO2 -> H2O + CO (reverse water-gas shift reaction)
    (2n + 1) H2 + n CO → CnH2n+2 + n H2O (Fischer-Tropsch process)

    Alternatively we could use the Haber process to produce ammonia, which can be used as a fuel:
    N2 + 3H2 -> 2NH3
    combusted later via
    4NH3 + 6O2 -> 2N2 + 6H2O

    1. ps To be carbon neutral the CO2 would have to be captured from air. This could perhaps be done by exposing calcium oxide (lime) to air to convert it to calcium carbonate, then heating the calcium carbonate to drive off the CO2 and regenerate the calcium oxide.

      1. Or we can get CO2 + H2 from seawater.



        “The U.S. Navy estimates that 100 megawatts of electricity can produce 41,000 gallons of jet fuel per day and shipboard production from nuclear power would cost about $6 per gallon.”

        100 megawatts makes 41,000 US gallons

        At todays wholesale price, would someone like to do the maths?

          1. Assuming they can make Jet-A quality fuel, then the current average price of Jet-A is averaging about $5.
            By my back-of-the-envelope numbers, to provide for US jet fuel consumption, it’d take in the ballpark of 150 GWe of reactors to provide for domestic jet fuel consumption, not including additives.

  9. Rod,

    If FShu is Frank Shu, the guy who invented astro-physics,
    then I suggest you are much better off going up
    against all the misguided and worse that populate
    the energy business than one of the most orginal
    scientists of our time. Let’s get back to fission.


      1. @Eamon

        If it is “conspiracy theory territory” to seek information about how rich and powerful people and industries work to ensure that the balance between supply and demand is kept in a condition that favors their continued accumulation of wealth and power at the expense of all of the rest of us, then that is a territory that Atomic Insights has visited in the past and will continue to visit in the future.

        I have difficulty understanding why others believe that rich and powerful people DON’T engage in long term planning, production control and cooperation that somehow remains either within the boundaries of the law or protected from view.

        1. The methods the rich and powerful use to control is worthy of investigation, but the conspiracy theory territory I was alluding to was that of unsupported theories.

          The Abiotic Oil theory is fascinating, but for the reasons laid out by many commenters here, primarily FShu and EP, the evidence for is lacking, and the evidence against is overwhelming.

          1. @Eamon

            I’m still trying to determine for myself if the evidence for abiotic oil is lacking. I have a lot of reading to do. Despite the erudite arguments offered here so far, there is apparently a large body of work to be evaluated.

            When I mentioned the rich and powerful, I was referring to the fact that oil industry leaders since John D. Rockefeller have been well aware of something that confuses most citizens. For the past 160 years, every single “energy crisis” has been contrived; though there may be a limit to the quantity of oil, coal and natural gas available on earth, at any given time so far, there has been far more supply that could be made available to the market than demand from the market.

            That is generally a recipe for a price collapse, so production has always needed some means of control/limitation to ensure that oversupply does not ruin the game for everyone.

  10. @ Rod

    Three years ago we made a bet about the cost of natural gas. I said that Henry Hub natural gas prices will not rise above $6 per MMBTU from now (August 20, 2013) until September 1, 2016, based on 1% inflation. You said it would be more than $6 by 9/1/2016. The bet was for $50. I said if I win you can donate $50 to the American Lung Association.


    Currently the Henry Hub price is under $3 per MMBTU.


    Are you going to honor your bet?

    1. @jaagu

      Yes. I will honor the bet.

      By the way, I’ve been thinking about that bet since publishing this post. Been enjoying the holiday weekend.

      I’ll take a screenshot of the donation receipt.

      1. @jaagu

        I just sent an email with a PDF of the donation receipt. I’m happy to have been wrong. Cheap, reasonably clean energy is a boon for mankind.

        Of course, cheaper and cleaner energy would be even better.

  11. ‘ By my back-of-the-envelope numbers, to provide for US jet fuel consumption, it’d take in the ballpark of 150 GWe of reactors to provide for domestic jet fuel consumption, not including additives.’
    Did your calculation include the cost of ~ 100 GWe of current US nuclear generation, compared to the current cost of domestic jet fuel ?

    1. No, it did not. My calculation was based on some derived numbers from aircraft miles flown and fuel usage.

      I just revised it using the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ domestic consumption per year for 2015. Using that value, and assuming the Navy can scale their technology at a constant, I arrive at 72 GWe of reactors.

      Cost of power and energy did not factor in. My point was to simply speculate as to whether providing for domestic fuel consumption would be feasible by the assumptions made by the Navy.

  12. On Brave New Climate, someone mentioned a key detail that should have settled the primordial/biogenic question ages ago:

    C12/C13 ratios.

    Photosynthesis favors uptake of C12 over C13.  Inorganic chemistry does not.  Thus we find that coal and oil have a lower fraction of C13 than does limestone.

    If anyone has found a natural-gas field with a C12/C13 ratio closer to limestone than plant matter, it has never come to my attention… and none of the people claiming an abiotic origin for FFs has mentioned it in any discussion I’ve seen.  A quick search DOES find abiotic oil claimants denying that the low C13 fraction in petroleum means anything, which I will take to be tantamount to proof that they’re wrong.

    1. Engineer-Poet Excellent point! However, I also think we all understand Rod’s intentions of an honest and unbiased exploration of alternative approaches to the coupled problems of climate change and energy poverty.

      In this arena, many people underestimate the power that biological activity has on changing this planet. Before the great deposits of coal occurred 300 million years ago via the charring at depth of biomass, atmospheric CO2 stood at 4000 ppm, 10 times its present value. If we consult ice-core data, the mean temperature then was 12 Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution average when atmospheric CO2 stood at 280 ppm. Going from 4000 ppm to 280 ppm is 3.8 halvings, with each halving reducing the mean temperature by 12 Celsius/3.8, or a little more than 3 Celsius per halving. This empirically derived value is in rough agreement with computer simulations of the temperature sensitivity of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. Thus, if we double the amount of CO2 from pre-industrial revolution values to 560 ppm, as we are on course to do well before the end of this Century so with “business as usual,” we can expect a 3 Celsius rise in mean temperature. We are undoing in centuries what it took nature hundreds of millions of years to do, which is to sequester atmospheric CO2 into fossil fuels and carbonate rocks, whose trapped CO2 we release by making cement from crushed limestone.

      My research team believes that a remedy is available: (a) we should replace fossil-fuel electricity and fossil-fuel heat as quickly as possible with nuclear electricity and nuclear heat, which has virtually zero associated CO2 emissions, and (b) we should turn dead or dying vegetation, before it rots, into biochar by a high-throughput process that we call “supertorrefaction” (STR). STR immerses waste biomass of any form under molten salt at 450 Celsius and turns it into high-quality biochar that meets the standards of the International Biochar Institute in 1 minute. Instead of burning the biochar, we then put it, after washing, back into the ground as a soil amendment for agriculture or forestry management (or even into abandoned coal mines if there are “environmental” objections to these other uses).

      If an aggressive expansion of new nuclear power is added to the portfolio of clean energy, it would possible to stop the rise of CO2 to 450 ppm in 2050. This would, however, not stop sea level rise, nor the increase of extreme weather events, nor the migration of tropical diseases like Zika and ebola into many regions around the world, whose poor and disadvantaged are already suffering the most. To address these problems at a causal level, we probably need to roll back atmospheric CO2 to the “safe” level of 350 ppm. STR of biomass can do the job before the end of the century if we turn 1/4 of all the plants (mostly on land) that die each year into biochar for 50 years from 2050 to 2100. This is a heroic form of terraforming a damaged Earth that I hope is worthy of the dreams and aspirations of the people now alive and yet to be born into the world.

      1. @FShu, The most intelligent proposal I have read on CO2 reduction in the 20+ years I have been following the climate debate. When your house is burning because of a gas leak you shut off the gas, you do not reduce the gas flow by 50 %.

        Meanwhile, Electric utilities shutdown Nuclear power plants to economically meet RPS requirements and/or because of the government subsidies on the unreliables making NPPs uneconomical, i.e. FCS, that result in a net increase in CO2. Fort Calhoun has announced their shutdown date as Oct. 24, 2016. http://oppdthewire.com/fort-calhoun-station-cease-operations-date/ And at the same time OPPD is converting 50 year old coal fired plants to burn NG. Meets the new EPA particulate but not as efficient as the average NG Turbine.

        1. Rich+Engineering-Poet Thank you for your comments. My publications over a 50-year professional career are in theoretical astrophysics so it won’t help you to study them. Below are a few links to YouTube videos that you might find interesting and relevant:

          Modular Thorium Reactor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woNU2Vgl7j0

          Biochar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xx2LLCuxdH4

          Mars colonization https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUgAYQc96is

          Molten Salt Breeder Reactors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTnBdleS98Y

          Some notes about these four videos: the first two are short, but has interesting discussion threads. They are also somewhat out of date; e.g., the second video talks about biochar using an older salt that produced biochar in 10 min at 300 C. The new (more corrosive) salt produces biochar in 1 min at 450 C (we’ve also done some STR at 550 C). We can oxidize charcoal fines and tar in the new salt, so once the salt is molten, it does not need any external input of heat. The equipment is also transportable on trucks so we can go to where the biomass is rather than bring the biomass to a fixed site. We’re trying to convince the Taiwan government to use the technology on agricultural waste and the State of California on beetle-killed pine trees.

          The third video takes over an hour to watch, a chore for viewers, but relaxation for me. As you know, working on climate change in the present political climate (which also needs change) is very depressing. Every now and then, I need to take a breather and think about more elevating matters. (I suspect Rod’s interest in abiogenic hydrocarbons stems from some of the same reasons.)

          The fourth video will really challenge your attention span, nearly three hours of talk about why I left astrophysics to work on clean energy. It contains the reasoning to why I think climate change can not only be stopped, but be reversed within this century. It also contains a diagram at the end — what I call the Santayana diagram — that summarizes both the basics and paradoxes of the energy business from a technical point of view. We’re trying to convince NASA to build a prototype research reactor, using Rod’s argument (which I cite) that it’s possible to bypass much of the red tape at the NRC if less than 50% of the products are sold.

          Please give me your feedback via the discussion threads on those videos. I am really impressed with the level of knowledge, open mindedness, clear thinking, and genuine social concern shown by you and the other commenters on this site. Meaningful climate action will probably sprout only from grass-roots action using public demonstrations and social media. Unfortunately, the conversation is currently dominated by people who are not trained technically, or not numerate, or urge action on the basis of preformed ideologies. That’s why the continued leadership of dedicated people like Rod Adams who are not afraid to challenge establishment thinking is so important.

          1. @Fshu

            Administrative note: I apologize for the difficulty you had in posting your last two comments. The filters automatically route any comment with too many links to a moderation queue. Based on observed behavior, not any setting I am aware of, I’m guessing the code within the filter also routes subsequent comments from anyone with a comment waiting to be moderated in a specific thread into the moderation queue as well.

          2. @FShu

            Watching your fascinating 4th video. Still have a ways to go, but wanted to jot off a brief note for the record. As a non-scientist student of humanity — and man’s inhumanity to man — I have found that there are evil, greedy and selfish people in the world. They are a small minority, but a few of them have the ability to do major damage in seeking to accomplish their own goals. An even smaller fraction have actually done major damage.

            At the Naval Academy, where I did my undergraduate work, one of the first and most often reinforced things we were taught was that there were only five basic responses to a question from a superior – Yes, sir. No sir. No excuse sir. I’ll find out sir. The correct answer to the question.

            My naval career was not quite as successful as those of many of my best friends and classmates. I think part of the reason was that I wasn’t very keen on using “no excuse sir” to answer a question that I thought should be given a better, more complete and thoughtful answer.

            During the past 25 years, I’ve been on a quest to answer what I believe is one of the most important questions I have ever been asked — why did the first Atomic Age fail? Technical choices are only a small part of the answer. In my analysis humanity and man’s inhumanity to man bears a major share of the blame. Without addressing and mitigating that obstacle while improving technology, the second Atomic Age — which I am sure has already begun — will also fail to achieve its full potential.

          3. Rod I believe you’re commenting on the part of the 4th video where I say, “Nobody’s evil. Everybody’s trying to do their best.” The statement is rhetorical: Obviously, there are evil people in the world. We can all come up with our own lists. But the point is that no one would appear on their OWN list.

            What is evil is a matter of values. Society goes awry when what are considered “universal values,” set down as a rule of law (not rule by law), undergoes challenge.

            Take climate change. Clearly, it is a scientific problem. Is it happening or not? If it is, we should do something about it, and the assessment of the proposed solutions should be done on a scientific basis. And if the deployment of those solutions costs money, then there should be a rational economic assessment of the cost versus benefit.

            Is this happening? Obviously not. In America, there used to be consensus that the problem is scientifically real. But ideology, on both the right and the left, got in the way of what to do about it. People on both sides didn’t like the proposed solutions and deployments of the other side, and they started to question the science, or in some cases, make up their own facts to suit their ideologies.

            In most parts of the world, where science and technology is seen as the only real path to economics development, people overwhelmingly accept the fact that climate change is happening, and is, in fact, here. In the more hard-headed countries that are ruled by a scientific or engineering elite, they make hard-headed, sound, but undemocratic economic decisions about what to do.

            In a democracy, we must try to reach consensus by political compromise. Compromise begins by not calling people who disagree with you “evil.” That gets us collectively nowhere, and the atmospheric levels of CO2 keep climbing.

            When I graduated from college in 1963, JFK was President and the world had gone through the harrowing experience of the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy realized that confrontation with the Soviet Union was not the answer and must give way to peaceful co-existence,. He made a commencement speech at American University that contained the following passage:

            “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

            Somebody needs to say that about climate change.

          4. “Obviously, there are evil people in the world. We can all come up with our own lists. But the point is that no one would appear on their OWN list.”

            I strongly disagree. When an evil person is engaged in retrospection, it is my belief that the truly evil amongst us recognize fully what side of the line they stand on. Does an accomplished liar do so without recognizing their own dishonesty? When greed dictates the abuse of your fellows, hasn’t the abuser in fact chosen your manner of interaction? True evil is a choice, just as true compassion, tolerance, and empathy are. Unfortunately, true evil seeks the possession of power, and mankind has reached the regretable point in its history where choosing evil is the route to power. In fact, it is a requirement in one’s quest for power.

      2. Fascinating that you’re operating at just shy of the ~500°C at which fast pyrolysis to bio-oil is done.

        I can’t seem to find your department’s web page, can you either point me to it or contact me at the e-mail on my blog (ergosphere.blogspot.com)?  I’ve long had some questions that I’m sure your published work would answer for me.

      3. F Shu, what is your assessment of olivine carbon sequestration via enhanced weathering ? That seems like it would mimic the natural formation of limestone, just as STR mimics the natural formation of coal, but without being constrained by the amount of vegetable matter you could get hold of ( there’s plenty of olivine ), and without the need for high temperatures.

        1. John ONeill Olivine sequestation is, in some sense, nature’s major method of locking up CO2. If one were to release all the CO2 locked up in carbonate rocks (what olivine turns into after sufficient weathering and chemical transformation), it has been estimated that the Earth’s atmosphere would become almost Venusian: 70 atmospheres of CO2. Not 400 ppm = 0.0004x of 1 atmosphere, but 70x of 1 atmosphere!

          However, even if you ground up the requisite amount of olivine (roughly 100 billion tonne) into a fine powder, it would take a long time to capture dilute CO2 out of a rarefied gas that is only 400 ppm of CO2. And who would pay you to do it? These are things that have to be studied on a small scale before they can be considered for serious deployment.

          Many good ideas in principle come out of academia every day. Somebody has to invest the time and money to allow these ideas to cross the “valley of death” between academic science and commercialization before they can be accepted as a viable industrial practice.

          1. even if you ground up the requisite amount of olivine (roughly 100 billion tonne) into a fine powder, it would take a long time to capture dilute CO2 out of a rarefied gas that is only 400 ppm of CO2.

            Not that long.  Normal atmospheric mixing puts enough CO2 within the grasp of land plants that they reduce levels by several ppm in a matter of months.  That is the very thing you’re trying to exploit with biochar.  There is a lot of gas exchange between atmosphere and oceans, especially due to thermal solubility variations.  If you dusted the upwelling currents with minerals that dissolved and released calcium and magnesium on the way down, perhaps the free pCO2 could be reduced to less than the atmospheric pressure by the time it surfaced.  That would turn the entire ocean surface into a CO2 sink.

            The oceans already sink about 1.5 billion tons of CO2 per year, net.  That could be big.

            And who would pay you to do it?

            Use minerals that have something else that feeds a need, like iron.  Dissolving minerals will also add silica.  Silica makes diatom skeletons, carbonate feeds other things, iron is a limiting nutrient for photosynthesis IIUC.  Algal blooms feed plankton which feed fish which people eat.  Make the fishermen pay for it.

          2. John ONeill + Engineer-Poet Let me elaborate on my answer. I think olivine sequestration is a good idea, but it needs small scale experiments to test economic (and environmental) viability. The overall problem has the same scientific basis as the first step of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) for coal-fired power plants (where the CO2 concentration in flue gas is much higher than 400 ppm). CCS is not being implemented because of the added cost to coal power plants that already cannot compete against natural gas plants.

            My understanding is that it takes US$2 to US$4 to powder limestone. It would take more, maybe US$10 to powder olivine. If so, just the raw material cost of 100 billion tonne of powdered olivine would exceed the total equipment cost for the STR of biomass to remove the same amount of CO2 from the atmosphere in 50 yr.

            Klemen and Matter at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia — http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/gpg/projects/carbon-sequestration — have conducted laboratory studies of olivine sequestration and find the carbonation reaction to be too slow for practical usage until the temperature gets to about 185 Celsius. They suggest that in situ sequestration of captured CO2 from thermal power plants in favorable geological formations may be a better approach than ex situ sequestration at the power plant using powdered olivine.

            We may look into using crushed olivine to absorb the CO2 dissolved in our molten salt to improve the negative carbon budget of the STR technology where the gasification and oxidation of biomass provide the elevated temperature needed to speed up reactions. Thanks for providing this motivation!

          3. Klemen and Matter at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia — [URL elided] — have conducted laboratory studies of olivine sequestration and find the carbonation reaction to be too slow for practical usage until the temperature gets to about 185 Celsius.

            Actually, their page says that 185°C is the optimum.  (Turns out that page was in my bookmarks as part of my previous investigations—you and I seem to run down some of the same roads.)

            I’ve been musing about other reactions for a while.  One of the features of serpentinization of ultramafic rocks is that some of the hydrothermal reactions release hydrogen.  If the hydrogen can be captured, it’s “free” fuel.  I know that silica dissolves in hot water but nothing about the solubility constants (I’ve lost touch with my pet geologist).  Here’s a scenario that comes to mind:  crushed igneous rock is bathed in a stream of nuclear-heated seawater at great depth and pressure, which may or may not be enriched in CO2.  The rock reacts with the water, forming new minerals, dissolved ions and hydrogen.  Some of the hydrogen is captured as a fuel or reagent.  The minerals precipitate as the temperature falls and the ions react with whatever’s present.

            If you use rocks which contain minerals which are the limiting algal growth factors in a particular area, you can increase primary productivity as well as adding calcium, magnesium and sodium to reduce acidity and help precipitate carbonates.  You pay for this by selling carbon-neutral fuels made using the hydrogen, plus fishing rights.

            $10/ton probably includes a bunch of assumptions about the price of energy.  Those assumptions are questionable on a mineral-processing factory ship where you’d likely be doing this.  You want something dumb and stone-ax simple.  I like the idea of a nuclear reactor using Si-C fuel cladding, seawater coolant/moderator, and reactivity regulation by the moderator density sitting 1 km below the surface and thermosiphoning hot water into a heap of crushed rock which produces a plume like a black smoker.  It appeals to my sense of elegant simplicity.

            Also, correcting the ocean pH may well be more urgent than atmospheric CO2.

          4. Engineer-Poet Here is a more precise calculation that spells out my assumptions. Approximate olivine optimistically as its end member fosterite. Then the relevant equation is that of Klemen and Matter:

            Mg2SiO4 (s) + 2CO2 )g) –> 2MgCO3 (s) + SiO2 (s),

            which requires 1.6 tonne of olivine to sequester 1 tonne of CO2. The lowest quoted price on Alibaba for 1 tonne crushed olivine is US$50, which looks plausible to me since this is similar to the price for Appalachian coal that is currently depressed and has a much better developed infrastructure for extracting it. To bring CO2 at 450 ppm in 2050 down to 350 ppm in 2050 requires the sequestration of 750 billion tonne (Gt) of CO2, or 1200 Gt of olivine (more, if the olivine has any fayalite), at a cost of US$60 trillion.

            I was being generous when I rounded off 1.6 to 1, used a price of US$10 per tonne for crushed olivine instead of US$50, and set a low bar of 100 Gt of CO2 instead of 750 Gt. Doing geoengineering at the required scale realistically is neither easy nor cheap. Do you have a cost estimate for your ideas?

          5. Approximate olivine optimistically as its end member fosterite.

            I’m sure there are good reasons for specifying olivine, but my web searches didn’t turn up anything for high-quality deposits of the stuff.  There’s one whale of a lot of basalt on the planet, which usually has a lot more CaO and MgO than alkalis, but I wasn’t able to find much about how it weathers or whether it could be hydrolyzed easily.  This engineer doesn’t know enough about geology or chemistry to plug those gaps.

            Basalt does appear to contain substantial amounts of iron, though.  This suggests that successfully dissolving/leaching metal ions from the rock can accelerate biological productivity in iron-poor ocean waters (it worked spectacularly off the coast of British Columbia in 2012).  Even temporary CO2 uptake to make biomass still depletes the atmospheric excess and raises pH, and anything that feeds fish is a weapon against collapse of fisheries.  The vastly smaller amount of material required makes per-ton cost a lot less critical.

            There is a massive amount of chloride in the oceans.  Maybe the easy way is to use electrolysis to make HCl or some other acid, leach rock with it, and then neutralize the metal-rich leachate.  Using heat and iron to create a nutrient-rich water plume and algal bloom in the midst of blue, nearly-sterile ocean expanses and harvesting the fish a couple levels up the food chain would accomplish several things at once.  I don’t know what it would take to grow a billion tons of anchovies every year, but that much would keep humanity in all the pizzas and caesar salads anyone could stand to eat.

            I have no idea whatsoever what any of this would cost.  Cheaper is better, using natural forces to multiply effects costs nothing, and achieving climate goals as a byproduct of profit-making enterprises is probably the only way it will get done.

            Let’s try $100/ton to dredge up basalt and crush it to powder consistency, and that 5% iron by weight can be extracted from it.  If 100 tons of elemental iron can produce 1.5 million extra salmon at perhaps 10 pounds apiece, $1/pound for the fish suggests a value of about $15,000 per ton of iron.  If it only costs $2000/ton to extract iron from basalt, the fish pay for the whole thing.  Anchovies have a shorter life cycle and are probably much more productive than salmon.

            You dump the spent basalt powder in the water.  If it dissolves Ca and Mg ions and they form carbonates, that’s “free”.  If your acid-generator is doing something else, like liberating CO2 for “green” synthetic fuels, maybe the acid is “free” or at least reduced cost.  There are so many possible angles in this it’s hard to see where to start.

  13. The pro-nuclear community seems unaware of the revolution in agriculture (“regenerative”) and livestock ranching (“holistic planned grazing”) being pioneered by the Savory Institute. The potential for carbon sequestration from this in rapidly restored deep black soil is tremendous. (Work is being done to quantify this.) This revolution will result in the reversal of desertification that is taking place on much of the world’s arable land, the restoration of grassland, and of vast herds of herbivores that co-evolved with the grasslands, albeit, herds under the pressure of predators and therefore acting much differently than human-managed herds since the domestication of cattle. The regenerative agriculture/holistic grazing proponents, for their part, tend to overstate their case and seem oblivious to the crucial role to be played vs. AGW by the rapid build-out of 1000s of molten salt reactors to stop carbon emissions from fossil sources. Biochar is well and good, but the exponential growth of vast herds, managed properly, is well within our technological ability, and furthermore, is very profitable, and good for humanity in all respects. And, the pursuit of these practices could also be spurred by geopolitical contention between the US, China and others over, for example, influence in African countries. (Non-pollyanna reasons…) Solar-powered carbon sequestration that actually works. see: http://savory.global/assets/docs/evidence-papers/restoring-the-climate.pdf

    1. Your linked paper from the Savory Institute makes inspiring reading. One finds oneself thinking “I really hope this is true!”. Nevertheless, it is only fair to point out that there are dissenting opinions as to Allan Savory’s basic tenet, which is that with “holistic (grazing) resource management” similar beef yields to those of conventional cattle ranching can be mantained while at the same time greatly increasing soil carbon content, seqestering globally significant quantities of CO2 and restoring degraded landscapes.

      Some dissenting opinions are summarized at https://terrastendo.net/2013/03/26/livestock-and-climate-why-allan-savory-is-not-a-saviour/ .

      One thing that those involved in the debate all agree on, is that regular burning of grazing land, is a really bad idea.

      I have not the expertise to pronounce on any of this. But it would be great if high-quality expertise and research can be brought to bear so that neither genuine good ideas, nor fruitless efforts on dud ones, are wasted.

      1. Not surprisingly, there is a sizable section of faux Greens who are rabidly opposed to the Savory Institute. I count among them ideological vegetarians and also academics who have made a name for themselves opposing universal grazing schemes, such as “rotational grazing.” The Savory Institute does not advocate any dogmatic schema as a universal panacea to restoring the world’s grasslands. Up to 20 or more factors have to be independently analyzed for each unique ecological situation, and for unique political and economic factors. I have found that in the polemics against Allan Savory, what is stigmatized are grazing “systems” that have nothing in common with holistic planned grazing. I have seen taunts that the “before and after” photos showing amazing results are tainted in that the “after” photos benefited from higher rainfalls. (incorrect). And these same critics fall silent at “side by side” photos where the rainfall was obviously the same, but the difference was that the land was restored under the direction of the Savory Institute, but remained severely damaged when not so-managed.

        1. For more inspiring reading along these lines, have a look at K. Ohlson’s “The Soil Will Save Us”, http://www.kristinohlson.com/books/soil-will-save-us/.
          Given that the stock of CO2 in both the Atmosphere and Ocean are close to the limits where life can adequately adapt, this book shows how humans can increase the flow of CO2 into the soil by proper land management?

  14. I’m pretty much convince of the abiotic origin of (at least some of) our petroleum, largely based on the paper “The evolution of multicomponent systems at high pressures: VI. The thermodynamic stability of the hydrogen–carbon system: The genesis of hydrocarbons and the origin of petroleum” by Kenney, Kutcherov, Bendelian, and Alekseev. (There’s a link in the Wikipedia article on abiogenic petroleum.) They showed theoretically that hydrocarbons heavier than methane will evolve only at pressures above approximately 30 kbar (corresponding to a depth of approximately 100 km), and demonstrated experimentally the synthesis of petroleum hydrocarbons (ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane…) from only iron oxide, marble, and water, at 50 kbar and 1500 C.

    So the Earth may have been synthesizing petroleum longer than it has been hosting life, and the process may be continuing today. But I do not understand the immediate conclusion that this offers an effectively infinite supply of energy. Suppose each of our known oil fields is actually being refilled by more petroleum seeping up from regions where it is formed. I suspect the process is very slow. I started to write “glacially slow”, but on second thought that would be far too fast. More like “tectonically slow”. If the steady-state petroleum production rate is, say, one percent of our current consumption rate, we still need to find another source of energy. (It’s likely to require an investment of energy, so we should make that investment while energy is relatively cheap.)

    1. Your point on the rate of oil production, whether abiotic or not, is right on the money. ( I think someone estimated that the earth took about a million years to pack away the fuels we burn in one year. )
      Most oil, though, has fossil conodonts in it as markers, not only of the period when the original plant matter was laid down – from the species – but also of how deep it went. Depth equates to heat, and heat gradually darkens the tooth-like conodonts, giving a good colour indicator of how well processed the hydrocarbons are. Too deep, the conodonts turn black, and the oil is destroyed.

    2. It’s the typical problem engineers solve for most dynamic systems. Forgive me for belaboring the obvious, but sometimes we lose sight of the forest for the trees. You have a system with a source and a sink. There may be multiple sources and sinks and in that case, assuming the differential equations are linear, you can solve them simultaneously. But the key factors are the production and depletion time constants. As you note, for at least one (maybe all) of the sources, the time constants are very long. The depletion rates may be very high. If the system is stable, it will trend toward an equilibrium. If the system is unstable, you will get either a zero (complete depletion) or a pole (singularity, or runaway). The complete depletion case may be limited by the initial conditions (i.e., a large starting reserve). The runaway case will continue until some other feedback effect (if there is one) counters it. The feedback effects, if they are a function of the input variables, make the equations non-linear and so you have to go to numerical methods to solve the problem approximately, which results in a lot of uncertainty.

      1. Wayne SW You are formally right of course, but stating the problem as the solution to a system of differential equations does not help the public to understand the scope of the problem. There has to be a point of focus. My personal belief, and that of many scientists (but, not the majority), is that the IPCC made a big mistake to make that focus the mean boundary temperature between the atmosphere and the ocean, limiting that temperature rise in the 21st Century relative to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to 2 Celsius at most, and 1.5 Celsius if achievable. The problem stated in those terms brings in all the rate constants and uncertainties that you mention. Given the huge reservoir of heat (viewed either as a sink or a source) that the ocean is relative to the atmosphere, the boundary temperature between them may be a sensitive function of space and time, yielding opportunity for mischievous interpretations by people with preset agendas.

        A better, and more straightforward, indicator is the accumulated CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Had the IPCC stated, from the beginning, as it sort of knew, that 350 ppm is probably safe, and 450 ppm is likely dangerous, the world’s attention would have been focused on the right problems and the effective solutions (e.g., a tax on carbon and giving proper credit to nuclear energy for zero CO2 emissions).

        Consider the problem of geoengineering in this context. J. S. is correct to point out that one way to do CCS is to perform the reverse of cement making,

        CaO (s) + CO2 (g) –> CaCO3 (s) + heat.

        However, if you were just to throw away the CaCO3, as some have proposed to do in the case of olivine substituting for CaO, then the cost of the capture agent becomes prohibitive. How prohibitive? The difference in the cost of making cement (the reverse process to the above reaction) that generates CO2 to the amount of CO2 put up by burning fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry is much bigger than the cement industry, so one is talking about huge sums of money, as indicated in my extended calculation for John ONeill and Engineer-Poet. For that reason, actual CCS schemes are run in a CYCLE that recovers the CaO in a separate step:

        CaCO3 (s) + heat –> CaO (s) + CO2 (g).

        The difference is that the CO2 from the first reaction was obtained by burning, say, coal in air, so the flue gas contains a lot of more N2 than CO2 (which is in turn much more concentrated than the background 400 ppm in air). It would cost far too much to try to sequester that flue gas directly because most of the volume would be occupied by the N2. Thus, in the second reaction, one removes the CaCO3 that has locked up the CO2 and releases the CO2 by heating it (which costs energy) in a separate chamber. Now one has pure CO2 that one can convert to supercritical CO2 (at the cost of more energy) with a much higher density than a normal gas, and pumps the sCO2 into some geological reservoir, and hope that the sCO2 binds to the rocks there and does not escape. When one does all of the above, including RECYCLING the CaO, one reduces the cost to where it adds “only” perhaps 40% to the cost of burning coal without CCS. But coal-fired power plants in the United States and Europe without CCS already cannot compete with natural gas without CCS because of all the scrubbing that has to be done to remove noxious emissions like NOx, SOx, and particulates. So, no matter how cheap one can make CCS with improved technologies, coal burning in existing furnaces has no future in the US or Europe (except in foolish countries that abandon functioning nuclear power plants). In less-developed parts of the world, coal burning still has a future because these countries often don’t bother with the part about removing NOx, SOx, and PM2.5. Such neglect of air quality imposes a tremendous social cost to the environment and health hazards to the citizens.

        1. FShu

          Your arguments are persuasive and make sense to me as someone trained in the sciences. Consequently, I tend to view problems and offer opinions through that prism. As always, we seem to come back to the problem of communicating our views to the public in an understandable and palatable manner. Far too often I get the TL/DNR response on the blogs and comment boards.

          FWIW I had some concerns on the IPCC focus. It seemed more directed toward a symptom rather than the problem, which, as you note, is better indicated by CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. One of the things I did on a glaciology expedition in Kazakhstan was take ice cores for sampling CO2 concentrations from near-present day back to the period of Quaternary glaciation. The results were quite sobering when you compared the sudden shift from pre-industrial to industrial age, and the subsequent rise to the present day. IPCC would have done better to look there rather than the ocean-atmosphere thermal boundary. That’s not to dismiss legitimate concerns of ocean acidification, but again that is more a symptom of the primary effect. De-carbonization really should be the focus, and certainly we have the technology to address that in the electricity production sector.

          1. Wayne SW You have my profound respect and admiration to be in the front lines of that Kazakhstan expedition. I have always been puzzled by why the Nobel Prize in Chemistry or Physics has not been awarded to the ice core works. They have provided a rich and important record of the temperature response and the CO2 forcing term to those (partial) differential equations that you mentioned in your original comment. Perhaps people are bothered by the ambiguity of what is cause and what is effect. But cause and effect can be intermixed when there is positive feedback and amplification in a nonlinearly coupled system that teeters on the brink of instability (as you suggest with your reference to chaos theory). How else can we understand the correlation of cycles of glaciation and warming with the tiny variations of the obliquity of the Earth’s spin axis and the eccentricity of its orbit around the Sun (Milankovich cycle)?

            In such a case, it may be highly inappropriate to focus on an internal boundary variable (the mean surface temperature of the Earth) as the control variable to bring the system back under control. This is especially true because most people do not understand the difference between temperature and heat. The think that global warming means an increase in the temperature without realizing that when multiple phases of matter exist, you can have additions of heat without any changes of the temperature. The example I like to give is a glass of coke with ice in it. As long as the ice remains, you can continue to add heat to the glass and the coke remains cold. But when the ice disappears, the coke gets warm quickly. Worse, it begins to lose its fizz (dissolved carbon dioxide). That’s what we may be doing in the case of the Earth. We are buying time, keeping the surface temperature relatively OK at the expense of melting the ice in the world. We will be in serious, serious trouble when that ice starts to disappear.

          2. FShu very kind of you to say that. I was one of a fairly large team that was involved in a lot of things, ice cores being one. The expedition leader made me part of the team as a favor for helping set up and calibrate the mass spec we used for the CO2 studies.

            Your example of the ice melting also tends to reinforce what was discussed earlier by the public, and even groups like IPCC seeming to miss the more significant factors while focusing on others that either capture the public’s imagination or seem more “spectacular” from a popular media viewpoint. The immediate conclusion people jump to when the subject of ice cap melting comes up is…sea level rise. That is easy to visualize, and it certainly makes for more sensational reporting (“New York will be flooded! Miami in danger! Ahhh!”). But the other aspects, effect on heat balance, increased releases of CO2 from natural sinks, is never written about because it doesn’t evoke the images of disaster, even though it will come to that if the system reaches a tipping point and becomes unstable.

        2. There is a heck of a lot of energy lost as waste heat in the carbonation of CaO.  I saw a proposal some time back to use chilled ammonium hydroxide instead; it takes far less energy to liberate CO2 from ammonium carbonate.  Lately I seem to recall a zeolite which is actually effective at sub-400 ppm, has low energy requirements and could have a myriad of uses in things like closed-cycle life support systems, but that one seems to have escaped my compulsive bookmarking.

  15. Today, Allan Savory has published a reply to another group of academics who have attacked the Savory Institutes work in a grossly unprincipled fashion. Mr. Savory’s reply is thoughtful and thought-provoking. http://savory.global/allanUncensored/Response-to-Holistic-Management-a-critical-review-of-Allan-Savory%E2%80%99s-grazing-method-by-Maria-Norborg-and%20Elin-Roos // There is a potentially powerful pro-nuclear alliance possible with this growing scientific insurgency. One faction is implementing a global strategy to revolutionize agriculture and in so doing, solve many crying problems, including the need for massive carbon sequestration to deal with accelerating climate change. The other faction is pushing for nuclear energy, and in particular, for Gen IV reactors that can be mass produced off of assembly lines like Liberty Ships or Boeing 777s, in order to move society forward, and to halt fossil fuel carbon emissions from electricity, transportation fuels, and industrial heat. Both forces face opposition from entrenched interests. Some of them are factions of ‘greens’. Simplistic thinking from these types includes opposition to CAFO feedlot cattle and opposition to clearcutting rainforests to grow McDonalds’ Big Macs means opposition to livestock in general, even if grass-fed. And they maintain their opposition even if vast herds of herbivores (such as in pre-history, when the grasslands co-evolved with them, along with apex predators) alone can restore the world’s grasslands and hydrology. Some of this has a big whiff of misanthropy about it. By the way, I can attest, that my Facebook advocacy of holistic planned grazing opens many people’s minds to my simultaneous nuclear advocacy. Only on the surface does this appear to be a scientific Odd Couple, which many find intriguing. I am trolling for some physics heavy hitters with PhD after their names to reach out to Allan Savory and friends.

  16. Rod I regret having contributed to a discussion that seems to have veered wildly off course, for good or bad, from the original topic of the origin of fossil fuels. I think Jack Devanney, the founder of the company ThorCon in the business of actually trying to build nuclear reactors is right: it’s time for Atomic Insights to get back to fission.

    1. @FShu

      Please don’t be sorry. Conversations here often drift or even veer wildly off the original topic. As long as people seem interested and remain polite, I rarely intervene and often learn something quite interesting.

      I appreciate your contributions to an intriguing discussion.

  17. Another fact against the abiotic oil hypothesis:

    Wherever there is oil, there are oil seeps.  Oil sheens on water are so distinctive they can be detected by satellite, and in fact this is how many new offshore oil fields are discovered.

    If oil was coming from volcanic processes, we’d see the sheens above e.g. ocean-floor spreading ridges.  We don’t.

  18. To be honest, I have never been worried about sustainability in energy supply. I fail to understand the need for people to pick today the energy resource we will use for the next 200k years. Use whatever coal you want, or whatever gas you want, or whatever oil you want. If we find 50 years down the road that we really have run out, we will simply switch to something else. We’ve done 180 in energy supply modes in a tenth of that time. What I am much more concerned about is if the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the earth would make earth unliveable for humans in 200 years. We could burn all the coal we want, but we should make sure our CO2 levels don’t exceed levels that make our environment hostile to human life. Whether the creation of oil or gas or coal in earth was biotic or abiotic, as long the rate of CO2 absorption is lower than emission, we are headed down a very dangerous and uncertain path.

  19. Rod – I’m glad you’re continuing to explore new ideas and write about them for our consideration. I do have to say that I think this particular ‘rabbit hole’ is a bit of a distraction from your main focus. Even if there is abiogenic hydrocarbon in the Earth as a source of fuel, it would still have to be brought to us by suitable geology. The wikipedia article (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_geology) cites seven key elements. In conventional production, the hydrocarbons have to migrate from a source and accumulate in a trap where we can get at them via drilling. We’re now producing from some source rocks more directly via fracking, but the sources still need to have matured enough to be useful. Abiogenic hydrocarbons might give us more places to look for hydrocarbons the way that we can now look for helium in volcanic rocks as well as in oil reservoirs.

    I agree with your assessment of liquid hydrocarbon fuels as incredibly useful. We’ve created engines that give us the fully dispatchable power we want for work and play. It’s horses you can hold in your hand, without the nuisance of feed, harnesses, and mucking out the stable. Don Larson discussed the US Navy’s project for generating hydrocarbon fuel with small modular reactors in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8zOHZINyG8.

    Creating fuel to deliver in jerry cans to stoves, lamps, hydrocarbon fuel cells, and heat powered refrigerators (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absorption_refrigerator) is an alternative to the electricity grid. And it can deliver remarkable amounts of power. When I’m pumping gas into my van, it’s ‘recharging’ my vehicle at about 20 megawatts. (Try to match that with an electric vehicle charging station.) There are typically 12 pumps at any one service station around here. They can all pump simultaneously, for around 240 megawatts equivalent instantaneous power.

    There’s a lot that can be accomplished with existing equipment and supply chains with the addition of industrial heat from high temperature fission reactors. Engineers design what they’re asked to design; it’s up to leaders to guide them so we can build what we need to be rich and have a world we share with all of life. I’d like to see you banging that gong, Rod, rather than chasing rabbits down irrelevant holes. No matter how interesting the chase is.

    1. @Andrew Jaremko

      I’d like to see you banging that gong, Rod, rather than chasing rabbits down irrelevant holes. No matter how interesting the chase is.

      That is the gong I am banging. My approach might be a little different than others, but I have determined that the scarcity and austerity message is one whose elimination will help with more rapid adoption of nuclear energy. I’ve had the benefit of talking to a lot of electricity production executives during both era of Nuclear Renaissance enthusiasm and post-Great Recession/Fukushima discouragement.

      One of the primary reasons they give for being unwilling to follow through with nuclear projects is that they have been experiencing flat load growth. That makes them unwilling to make any new investments at all.

      I also agree that the mere existence of plenty of hydrocarbons on Earth does not mean that we necessarily have the ability to extract them or that it would be beneficial to extract them. However, 10 years ago, we just barely had the ability to convince shale rock to release its stored methane. If extraction costs are too high or market prices are too low, resources will be left in the ground as long as investment decisions are reasonably honest.

      Abundant nuclear, once we break the logjam of reluctance to invest, will drive down market energy prices, effectively keep extreme effort resources in the ground, and help clean up the entire production system. We just need to set the bar high – abundant clean energy for all.

      It’s worth noting that the same foundation that commissioned the NAS to declare there is no safe dose of radiation also supported Paul Erlich, John Holdren and other Malthusians that preached about limitations to growth and the need to control populations to avoid resource wars.

      I just learned today that same funding source gave Farrington Daniels, one of the few Manhattan Project leaders truly focused on using atomic energy for peaceful uses starting in about 1944, $630 K from 1954-1963 to study and promote solar energy. That was what finally convinced him to give up trying to convince the AEC to fund his simple gas cooled reactor and closed cycle gas turbine project. One more thing that makes me think there was method in the effort to discredit nuclear and offer conservation, solar and other “renewables” as distracting non-nuclear alternative power sources.

  20. Unusually fine discussion in this thread. I have several comments to make about the various topics. To keep these separate I will post several comments.

    First, abiogenic hydrocarbons. As I pointed out on Brave New Climate in an open thread, this can be determined by the C13/C12 ratio with some success. Briefly, no petroleum with a significant abiogenic component has been found. However, there are plenty of sources of abiogenic methane. See
    The Many Sources of Natural Gas, J. Petroleum Geology, 1983.
    Methyl clathrates are often highly abiogenic in origin.

  21. Burial of biochar for the purpose of soil improvement has been studied since the 1930s, principally at Cornell. About half the buried biochar survives for at least the several decades of the experiment so far. The indications from the terra preta of the Amazon are that this will last for at least several thousand years.

    However, to be quasi permanent, like coal, not only is deep burial desirable but it is most important to compress the biochar into artificial anthracite, eliminating all the microstructure which gives biochar its value for agriculture. Of course, some of the compressed biochar could be sold to replace anthracite rather than digging in one place and burial in another. This would offset the substantial costs of plantations for the biomass to be charred.

  22. While a meme that has made its way to an organization name, 350 ppm carbon dioxide is not low enough. Jim Hansen wrote some time ago that 350 ppm was likely low enough to avoid the worst consequences of elevated carbon dioxide concentration. But we have passed that. The hysteresis in the destruction and regrowth of ice sheets means that to avoid serious sea level rise we now have to lower the carbon dioxide concentration to something less than 280 ppm for some centuries. The precise value can be determined in the future as it will take considerable time just to begin reversing the current trend.

    1. David B. Benson Thank you for revealing that you are the source of the C12/C13 comment on Brave New Climate, which I consider unequivocal evidence that petroleum has a biogenic origin, as does coal, but not necessarily methane, especially, methane clathrates. You might know that the reverse argument has been made to show, again from ice-core data, that most of the CO2 added to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution comes from burning fossil fuels.

      Please let me respond quickly to your two other posts. As you note, compressing biochar to crush away all its mesopore and micropore structure would destroy its value for agriculture (or, at higher end applications, as activated carbon). Thus, for making the economics more attractive, we recommend the division of the usage STR machines between making biochar and making activated carbon, neither of which are normally burned. As for time scale for the biochar to remain more-or-less intact in the soil, thousands of years is good enough. Who can project what technologies will become available on millennia kind of time scales, or what new problems will affect humanity, or even whether if human civilization will still be around in any currently recognizable form.

      Finally, I agree that hysteresis in te system may mean that we need to go to 280 ppm or even somewhat lower. However, we need to make a start, and 350 ppm has been chosen, for good or bad, as the target for rallying society. As you say, we have time to negotiate later what is an “ideal” CO2 concentration. The more important point is that we have already triggered noticeable dangerous effects at 400 ppm, so some kind of program for negative carbon emissions need to be implemented soon if we are to save those recently born and unborn from a life of misery and want.

      1. Two small points to add to your rapid and kind reply: We do not know that biochar added to soils at any latitude will last, even at the 50% level, for thousands of years. So a reasonable plan is to compress half of what is made and that half, or so, is deeply buried.

        As a most minor point, so called fracked natural gas is as abiogenic as most methyl clathrates so I wouldn’t say ‘especially’ regarding the latter.

      2. @FShu and David Benson:

        I’m going to take advantage of having attracted a couple of experts to this discussion. I’m a curious beginner.

        The C12/C13 ratio has been a widely cited refutation to Gold’s work for almost since he began publishing on his abiotic petroleum theories in the late 1970s. He dedicates 7 pages (64-72) in Deep Hot Biosphere to a detailed technical explanation of his interpretation of variations in those ratios mean in various carbon-bearing substances ranging from diamonds to petroleum and including carbonate cement, atmospheric CO2, methane, marine limestone and carbon in plants.

        I’m not knowledgable enough on this topic to briefly summarize his arguments, but I can quote his written conclusion from page 72.

        “In sum, the technical information and arguments in this section lead, in my view, to a straightforward general conclusion: The volumes, ages, and isotope ratios of crustal carbonates represent important evidence in favor of the view that hydrocarbons were primordial constituents of the earth, that they remain still, and that they continuously up well into the outer crust, finally emerging, oxidizing and mixing in the atmosphere.”

        Can either of you offer your reasons for discounting Gold’s evidence and arguments?

        1. Rod If you can get permission from the publisher, could you please post all seven pages of Gold’s book on this matter? It’s hard to discuss a subject without having access to the source material.

          Until then I can only make the following comment. The formation of the Earth from the solar nebula probably occurred in a turbulent environment where there was good mixing, as evidenced by the uniform value of the three stable isotopes of oxygen O-16, O-17, and O-18. Slight variations in the ratios are found in meteorites that originate in the asteroid belt and later fell on Earth, but the anomalies are small. As I understand it, the situation is quite different with the two stable isotopes of carbon: C-12 and C-13. Their deviations can only be understood as a process of biological activity. The abiotic (i.e., cosmic) value in methane derived from fracking and in clathrates DO indicate a primordial origin, as supported by Sagan’s proposed solution, abiotic methane, for the paradox of a faint young Sun. But you cannot have it both ways: an abiotic origin for some of the methane on Earth that shows a uniform cosmic value, and an abiotic origin for the petroleum, which does NOT.

          Finally, when someone proposes an overthrow of an established, reasonably successful, paradigm, the onus is on them to come up with strong evidence for their opposing point of view. It is a reversal of scientific norms, when the would-be revolutionary says, “here are my arguments — now disprove them.” If one continues to behave this way without offering extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, there comes a point when reasonable people stop listening to you.

          1. Rod, I should have also said that slight variations exist in rocks and corals of the O-16, O-17, and O-18 ratios, but those departures fall on a well-defined “1/2” slope in the standard diagram, that is understood as temperature variations at the time of the deposition of the material. This is how variations of the temperatures in the past are worked out, to exquisite precision, in ice-cores and corals.
            In contrast, the meteoritic anomalies do not lie on the “1/2” slope line, and therefore must be due to causes that are different than those responsible for the oxygen isotope anomalies.

            Another famous isotopic departure from cosmic values is the deuterium D found in mean ocean seawater, which is considerably enriched in D:H compared to the cosmic value, but not as enriched as we deduce from the spectra of the gas tails of comets. Deuterium can also be highly enriched in the molecules found in the cold of interstellar space, so an enriched value of D:H indicates that the water on Earth probably originated from a relatively cold source region, either in the outer regions of the asteroid belt where there are dark asteroids that are probably rich in carbon as well as deuterium, but maybe also in comets in the Kuiper belt if they come with greater variety than the few whose outgassed products have been studied in detail when they wander close to the Sun. In either case, this information is further evidence that the source region for most of the rocks on Earth (that contain the oxygen) is quite different for the source material that brought in the carbon, hydrogen, and deuterium. There are strong arguments that the amount of abiotic hydrocarbons that can exist on Earth is limited.

          2. @FShu

            Springer indicates that they will have an eBook version of Gold’s Deep Hot Biosphere available soon. It will list at $14. When available, I’ll send you the whole book since that will be easier than obtaining permission and then copying an excerpt. Besides, the context might be useful.

            I don’t think Thomas Gold was guilty of a failure to offer sufficient evidence along with pretty convincing explanations for how his theory fits available data better than the existing paradigm. It also addresses known anomalies that challenge the existing, accepted paradigm.

        2. Rod My addendum did not get posted, probably because of the program that filters comments with too many links. Anyway, here is the gist of my clarification, amended to give more explanation.

          Many years ago, the eminent geochemist Robert Clayton plotted the ratio of O-17/O-16 against O-18/O-16. Such plots of ratios against ratios when applied to the spectroscopy of light rather than the spectroscopy of isotopes are known in astronomy as color-color plots, but in geochemistry, they are known as δ-δ plots). When the three stable isotopes of oxygen are plotted up for different rocks on Earth in a δ-δ plot, they lie beautifully on a straight line with slope 1/2, that Clayton identified as a temperature effect, namely that rocks with the heavier isotopes O-17 and O-18 relative to main isotope O-16, solidified at a higher temperature than the mean, with O-17 showing half the effect of O-18 because it has only half of the mass departure from O16.

          There are meteorites that fell on Earth that can be identified as coming from Mars that show the same effect, except they lie on a slightly displaced, slope 1/2 line. The interpretation is that Earth rocks and Mars rocks have mean temperatures that are slightly different from a cosmic mean (what a well-mixed solar nebula had at the time of the origin of the solar system) because Earth and Mars formed at different distances from the Sun and had correspondingly different temperatures. The effects are tiny, but can be measured with exquisite precision with modern mass spectrometers. In any case, this phenomenon is the basis of precise measurements of the ambient temperatures present at the time that the material was deposited in ice-cores and corals on Earth. Geochemists have such faith in the method that often they don’t even bother to measure the (very small) O-17 content, and use the variations of just O-18/O-16 from the mean to deduce the temperature variation.

          Another isotope that is useful in this regard is deuterium D = H-2 and ordinary hydrogen H = H-1. The ratio of D/H realstive to some cosmic mean (what came out the big bang after some slight correction for processing in stars), which is now a very big effect because of the small atomic masses involved, is higher in hydrogen containing compounds if they formed in colder regions than in hotter regions. A trend holds for interstellar space, to the gaseous tail of comets, to the D/H of standard mean ocean water on Earth (SMOW), in that they indicate a progression toward higher temperatures for when the atoms were incorporated into molecules (often in a condensed state of matter like a solid or liquid). A surprise however is that while SMOW has a D/H value lower than the interstellar medium, and lower than the tails outgassed from the small sample of icy cometary nuclei that have been measured with enough spectral resolution, the SMOW D/H ratio is substantially higher (by a factor of about 5) than the cosmic value. This is in stark contrast with the O-18/O-16 or O-17/O-18 ratios that indicate the oxygen in the inner planets (and the Moon) are basically cosmic.

          The implication is that the rocky bodies of the inner planets, as traced by their predominant oxygen content, aggregated under very different circumstances than the hydrogen (or for that matter, the carbon, as I discussed in one of my earlier posts), with the hydrogen and carbon coming later from collisions of cometary bodies that originated from the Kuiper belt (or dark surfaced, volatile-rich asteroids in the outer parts of the asteroid belt). These facts stand against the theory that on Earth there are reserves of abiotic hydrocarbons that are almost inexhaustible.

          1. Rod Thanks for the offer, but you need not send me the eBook version of Gold’s “Deep Hot Biosphere.” I have Gold’s paper on the same subject (1992, PNAS, 89, 6045-6049). I was also the Thomas Gold Lecturer at Cornell University in 2002, and I’m pretty sure we had a discussion about his theory then. His proposal in the PNAS paper that subsurface bacterial life may exist in the pores of rocks down to a depth where the temperature reaches 120-150 Celsius is thought-provoking. I was amused by his calculation, using arbitrary but not implausible assumptions, that the total mass of this subsurface life could match or exceed that on the surface of the Earth. The notion that this bacterial lifeform would utilize chemical energy rather then photosynethetic energy has precedent in the biology surrounding hydrothermal vents. The speculation that chemical energy comes from primordial hydrocarbons that seeps upward from porous rock at depths where the temperature reaches 1000 Celsius is quite original, and I suspect, wrong. Nevertheless, it’s fun to follow Gold’s wide-ranging intellect connecting these ideas to topics like panspermia and possible subsurface lifeforms on other planets and moons of the solar system. There’s no question that Tommy Gold was one of the most imaginative and creative astrophysicists of the Twentieth Century. His ideas, even when wrong, challenged the status quo and stimulated a lot of scientific progress. However, his choice of the title for his PNAS paper and his later book may be prophetic. What future explorers may admire most about his theory may well be his prescient view of the tenacity of life rather than that petroleum on Earth has an abiotic origin.

  23. Rod Given our civil debate on the issue of abiotic petroleum, I probably have an obligation to state why I think Gold’s speculation that hydrocarbons could survive to depths where the temperature reached 1000 Celsius is wrong. When my group first started working on supertorrefaction (STR), we considered using heat-transfer fluids less corrosive than molten salts. So we looked into various forms of oils. No heat-transfer oil derived from petroleum distillation can long withstand temperatures even as high as 350 Celsius. The best performing are paraffins (near the bottom fraction of petroleum refining). That deficiency, plus the fact that oils cannot be removed from charred biomass by washing with water nor can oils serve as a medium to oxidize charcoal fines and tars, drove us to focus on molten salts. In an anoxic environment, specially formulated oils under pressure can delay the decomposition of the fluid to temperatures of almost 600 Celsius, but we are not now talking about natural petroleum.

    1. @FShu

      Thank you for this intriguing thread. I’m going to move onto other topics for now, but I suspect this one will continue to nag at me. As you noted, Thomas Gold was a brilliant, original thinker with an exceptional imagination. His work demonstrates that he had the same kind of patient, persistent questioning attitude that I learned to admire and adopt in cases where the conventional explanations just don’t seem to address all of the available facts.

      I’m working on a post about your STR project aiming to attract some conversation about ways to make atmospheric CO2 removal a reality that has a sustainable business model. Any comments or inputs in addition to your video presentation would be greatly appreciated rod_adams at atomicinsights.com

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