I spent this past weekend speaking at the 2013 Midwest Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. The crowds were huge, and there was a lot of enthusiasm amongst both the attendees and the speakers. It seems to me that this convention was much like the conventions I remember from ten years ago: lots of enthusiastic homeschoolers listening and talking to lots of enthusiastic speakers about the joys, troubles, and triumphs of home education. It was wonderful.
I spoke a total of seven times on six different subjects. Two of my talks were given with Diana Waring, and I enjoyed them the most. She and I have different styles that seem to complement each other really well. As she puts it, I provide the “analytics,” and she provides the “warm fuzzies.” I am not sure that’s exactly right, but it’s probably close. We gave the same talks in Greenville, SC, and we will be doing them again in Springfield, Missouri and Kissimmee, Florida.
As is typically the case, the most interesting part of the conference for me was interacting with the attendees. I had a rather constant stream of parents and students coming to my booth to talk with me. Many of them asked questions, and I hope my answers provided some help. Others came by just to report on how they (or their children) were doing with my courses. I was really impressed to meet one young lady who had completed all of my textbooks! I have authored or co-authored eight texts, and most students get through five of them. Some complete six, and a very few manage to cover seven, but this young lady had gotten through all eight of them. As a result, she has already taken the equivalent of a year of university-level biology, a year of university-level chemistry, and a year of university-level physics. That’s pretty impressive!
I take questions from the audience in all of my talks, and at the end of one of my evolution-related talks, a man asked a question about abiotic oil. He had read a book by Dr. Thomas Gold entitled The Deep Hot Biosphere, which tries to make the case that both oil and coal are not fossil fuels. In other words, they are not produced by decaying dead things. Instead, they are produced by chemical processes in the earth and simply reworked by living organisms. I read that book many years ago, and while it is definitely worth reading (even today), I personally think that it really overstates the case.
When it comes to coal, I think there is strong evidence that it is truly a fossil fuel. When it comes to oil, however, there is strong evidence that at least some of its components come from processes that are not related to living things at all. For example, Dr. Vladimir A. Kutcherov and his colleagues did some theoretical calculations showing that it is possible to form the basic constituents of oil (hydrocarbons) in conditions that are thought to exist in the upper mantle of the earth (the part right under the thin, outer layer of the earth, which is called the crust). They then did experiments to simulate those conditions. Starting with 99.9% pure iron oxide, marble, and triple-distilled water, they found that at pressures and temperatures thought to be characteristic of the upper mantle, they could form some of the hydrocarbons that are typically found in oil. As they wrote:1
At 50 kbar and at the temperature of 1,500°C, the system spontaneously evolved methane, ethane, n-propane, 2-methylpropane, 2,2-dimethylpropane, n-butane, 2-methylbutane, n-pentane, 2-methylpentane, n-hexane, and n-alkanes through C10H22, ethene, n-propene, n-butene, and n-pentene in distributions characteristic of natural petroleum.
Don’t get lost in all the hydrocarbon names to miss the fact that in this experiment, when the pressure and temperature were right, the chemicals produced were made in distributions that are typically found in naturally-occurring oil.
More recently, another set of experiments by Kutcherov and his colleagues demonstrated something similar. As the paper describing those experiments concludes:2
Our study determines that experimental PT conditions of hydrocarbon synthesis are appropriate for the Earth’s mantle (Fig. 3), creating the possibility of the abiogenic synthesis of petroleum components in the Earth’s upper mantle. [NOTE: “PT” refers to pressure and temperature]
So there is evidence that at least some of the chemicals that make up oil can be produced by natural processes that have nothing to do with dead things decaying. Does that mean oil is not a fossil fuel? Of course not! Notice that in both studies, the authors don’t claim to have made oil. They just claim to have made some of the components of oil. Thus, it is possible that at least some of the components of oil are produced by abiotic processes, but we are a long way from understanding how important this is to the formation of oil itself. It may be that only a tiny fraction of the chemicals we find in oil are made this way. It may be that most (or all) of the chemicals we find in oil are made this way. My suspicion is that the real answer lies somewhere in between. Right now, however, the best we can say is that the concept of abiotic oil requires a lot more research.
Unfortunately, it seems that U.S. scientists might be ignoring this. According to Alexei Milkov, a petroleum geologist who is originally from Russia:
When I talk with practicing Russian geologists, they often ask my views on the abiogenic origin of petroleum…This never happens in the United States, where organic is accepted fully and without scientific questioning.”
I hope that this is not the case, but if it is, it wouldn’t surprise me. Many people who call themselves scientists accept all manner of things without scientific questioning!
1. J. F. Kenney, Vladimir A. Kutcherov, Nikolai A. Bendeliani, and Vladimir A. Alekseev, “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,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 99:10976–10981, 2002 (Available online)
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2. Anton Kolesnikov, Vladimir G. Kutcherov, and Alexander F. Goncharov, “Methane-derived hydrocarbons produced under upper-mantle conditions,” Nature Geoscience, 2:566-570, 2009 (Available online)
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