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Nature. 2002 Apr 4;416(6880):522-4.

Abiogenic formation of alkanes in the Earth's crust as a minor source for global hydrocarbon reservoirs.

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  • 1Stable Isotope Laboratory, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


Natural hydrocarbons are largely formed by the thermal decomposition of organic matter (thermogenesis) or by microbial processes (bacteriogenesis). But the discovery of methane at an East Pacific Rise hydrothermal vent and in other crustal fluids supports the occurrence of an abiogenic source of hydrocarbons. These abiogenic hydrocarbons are generally formed by the reduction of carbon dioxide, a process which is thought to occur during magma cooling and-more commonly-in hydrothermal systems during water-rock interactions, for example involving Fischer-Tropsch reactions and the serpentinization of ultramafic rocks. Suggestions that abiogenic hydrocarbons make a significant contribution to economic hydrocarbon reservoirs have been difficult to resolve, in part owing to uncertainty in the carbon isotopic signatures for abiogenic versus thermogenic hydrocarbons. Here, using carbon and hydrogen isotope analyses of abiogenic methane and higher hydrocarbons in crystalline rocks of the Canadian shield, we show a clear distinction between abiogenic and thermogenic hydrocarbons. The progressive isotopic trends for the series of C1-C4 alkanes indicate that hydrocarbon formation occurs by way of polymerization of methane precursors. Given that these trends are not observed in the isotopic signatures of economic gas reservoirs, we can now rule out the presence of a globally significant abiogenic source of hydrocarbons.

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