Hadeo- and Archaeo-Geobiology

What can deep time teach us ?

Whilst doing a little background research into biological routes to hydrogen production, I came across a scientific journal paper, I can’t recall which, that suggested that the geological evidence indicates that Earth’s second atmosphere not only had a high concentration of methane, but also high levels of hydrogen gas.

Previously, my understanding was that the development of microbiological life included a good number of methanogens (micro-life that produces methane as a waste product) and methanotrophs (those that “trough” on methane), but that hydrogenogen (“respiring” hydrogen gas) and hydrogenotroph (metabolising hydrogen) species were a minority, and that this was reflected in modern-day decomposition, such as the cultures used in biogas plants for anaerobic digestion.

If there were high densities of hydrogen cycle lifeforms in the early Earth, maybe there are remnants, descendants of this branch of the tree of life, optimal at producing hydrogen gas as a by-product, which could be employed for biohydrogen production, but which haven’t yet been scoped.

After all, it has only been very recently that psychrophiles have been added to the range of microorganisms that have been found useful in biogas production – cold-loving, permafrost-living bugs to complement the thermophile and mesophile species.

Since hydrogen and methane are both ideal gas fuels, for a variety of reasons, including gas storage, combustion profiles and simple chemistry, I decided I needed to learn a little more.

I have now read a plethora of new theories and several books about the formation of the Earth (and the Moon) in the Hadean Eon, the development of Earth’s atmosphere, the development of life in the Archaean Eon, and the evolution of life caused by climate change, and these developments in living beings causing climate change in their turn.

Most of this knowledge is mediated to us by geology, and geobiology. But right at its heart is catalytic chemistry, once again. Here’s Robert Hazen (Robert M. Hazen) from page 138 of “The Story of Earth” :-

“Amino acids, sugars, and the components of DNA and RNA adsorb onto all of Earth’s most common rock-forming minerals […] We concluded that wherever the prebiotic ocean contacted minerals, highly concentrated arrangements of life’s molecules are likely to have emerged from the formless broth […] Many other researchers have also settled on such a conclusion – indeed, more than a few prominent biologists have also gravitated to minerals, because origins-of-life scenarios that involve only oceans and atmosphere face insurmountable problems in accounting for efficient mechanisms of molecular selection and concentration. Solid minerals have an unmatched potential to select, concentrate, and organize molecules. So minerals much have played a central role in life’s origins. Biochemistry is complex, with interwoven cycles and networks of molecular reactions. For those intricately layered processes to work, molecules have to have just the right sizes and shapes. Molecular selection is the task of finding the best molecule for each biochemical job, and template-directed selection on mineral surfaces is now the leading candidate for how nature did it […] left- and right-handed molecules […] It turns out that life is incredibly picky : cells almost exclusively employ left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. Chirality matters […] Our recent experiments have explored the possibility that chiral mineral surfaces played the starring role in selecting handed molecules, and perhaps the origins of life as well. […] Our experiments showed that certain left-handed molecules can aggregate on one set of crystal surfaces, while the mirror image […] on other sets […] As handed molecules are separated and concentrated, each surface becomes a tiny experiment in molecular selection and organization. On its own, no such natural experiment with minerals and molecules is likely to have generated life. But take countless trillions of trillions of trillions of mineral surfaces, each bathed in molecule-rich organic broth […] The tiny fraction of all those molecular combinations that wound up displaying easier self-assembly, or developed a stronger binding to mineral surfaces […] survived […] possibly to learn new tricks.”

They Think It’s Not All Over

[ Image Credit : Lakeview Gusher : TotallyTopTen.com ]

So, the EIA say that the world has 10 years of shale oil resources which are technically recoverable. Woo hoo. We’ll pass over the question of why the American Department of Energy are guiding global energy policy, and why this glowing pronouncement looks just like the mass propaganda exercise for shale gas assessments that kicked off a few years ago, and move swiftly on to the numbers.

No, actually, not straight on to the numbers. It shouldn’t take a genius to work out the public relations strategy for promoting increasingly dirtier fossil fuels. First, they got us accustomed to the idea of shale gas, and claimed without much evidence, that it was as “clean” as Natural Gas, and far, far cleaner than coal. Data that challenges this myth continues to be collected. Meanwhile, now we are habituated to accepting without reason the risks of subsurface and ground water reservoir destruction by hydraulic fracturing, we should be pliable enough to accept the next step up – oil shale oil fracking. And then the sales team can move on to warm us up to cruddier unconventionals, like bitumen exhumed from tar sands, and mining unstable sub-sea clathrates.

Why do the oil and gas companies of the world and their trusted allies in the government energy departments so desperately want us to believe in the saving power of shale oil and gas ? Why is it necessary for them to pursue such an environmentally threatening course of product development ? Can it be that the leaders of the developed world and their industry experts recognise, but don’t want to admit to, Peak Oil, and its twin wraith, Peak Natural Gas, that will shadow it by about 10 to 15 years ?

A little local context – UK oil production is falling like a stoneover the whole North Sea area. Various efforts have been made to stimulate new investment in exploration and discovery. The overall plan for the UK Continental Shelf has included opening up prospects via licence to smaller players in the hope of getting them to bet the farm, and if they come up trumps, permitted the larger oil and gas companies to snaffle up the small fry.

But really, the flow of Brent crude oil is getting more expensive to guarantee. And it’s not just the North Sea – the inverse pyramid of the global oil futures market is teeteringly wobbly, even though Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) are now included in petroleum oil production figures. Cue panic stations at the Coalition (Oilition) Government offices – frantic rustling of review papers ahoy.

To help them believe it’s not all over, riding into view from the stables of Propaganda Central, come the Six Horsemen of Unconventional Fossil Fuels : Tar Sands, Shale Gas, Shale Oil (Oil Shale Oil), Underground Coal Gasification, Coalbed Methane and Methane Hydrates.

Shiny, happy projections of technically recoverable unconventional (night)mares are always lumped together, like we are able to suddenly open up the ground and it starts pouring out hydrocarbon goodies at industrial scale volumes. But no. All fossil fuel development is gradual – especially at the start of going after a particular resource. In the past, sometimes things started gushing or venting, but those days are gone. And any kind of natural pump out of the lithosphere is entirely absent for unconventional fossil fuels – it all takes energy and equipment to extract.

And so we can expect trickles, not floods. So, will this prevent field depletion in any region ? No. It’s not going to put off Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas – it literally cannot be mined fast enough. Even if there are 10 years of current oil production volumes that can be exploited via mining oil shale, it will come in dribs and drabs, maybe over the course of 50 to 100 years. It might prolong the Peak Oil plateau by a year or so – that’s barely a ripple. Unconventional gas might be more useful, but even this cannot delay the inevitable. For example, despite the USA shale gas “miracle”, as the country continues to pour resources and effort into industrialising public lands, American Peak Natural Gas is still likely to be only 5 years, or possibly scraping 10 years, behind Global Peak Natural Gas which will bite at approximately 2030 or 2035-ish. I suspect this is why EIA charts of future gas production never go out beyond 2045 or so :-

Ask a mathematician to model growth in unconventional fossil fuels compared to the anticipated and actual decline in “traditional” fossil fuels, and ask if unconventionals will compensate. They will not.

The practice for oil and gas companies is to try to maintain shareholder confidence by making sure they have a minimum of 10 years of what is known as Reserves-to-Production ratio or R/P. By showing they have at least a decade of discovered resources, they can sell their business as a viable investment. Announcing that the world has 10 years of shale oil it can exploit sounds like a healthy R/P, but in actual fact, there is no way this can be recovered in that time window. The very way that this story has been packaged suggests that we are being encouraged to believe that the fossil fuel industry are a healthy economic sector. Yet it is so facile to debunk that perspective.

People, it’s time to divest your portfolios of oil and gas concerns. If they have to start selling us the wonders of bitumen and kerogen, the closing curtain cannot be far away from dropping.

They think it’s not all over, but it so clearly must be.

Renewable Gas : Elemental Fuels

It could be said that Climate Change science is an extreme sport – sojourns of several months in Antarctica to drill ancient ice pack, say, or collecting slices of deep sea and lake sediments. Recently, a Chinese team has taken three ice cores from Mount Everest, and a joint European and Japansese expedition have gone pond dipping in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean to try to better understand the global carbon cycle.

Geophysicists are clearly a hardy bunch, and persistent. Recently there has been a number of breakthroughs into extremely old water, such as a Siberian lake formed by a crater millions of years ago and covered by ice, and water perhaps billions of years old circulating in a Canadian copper mine, an environment that may be older than the development of the earliest lifeforms. A brief article in New Scientist magazine intrigued me – the description of the water which they are studying for signs of microbial activity – “it is packed with hydrogen and methane – chemicals that microbes love to eat […] perfect for life.”

It seems that science has still to uncover the full family of microbes and what they consume and what they produce. Many microbes manufacture hydrogen and methane, and some eat. The migration of microbial life into all parts of the Earth’s crust, including their reach to the bottom of the oceans, was responsible for altering atmospheric chemistry, which enabled the development of oxygen-breathing multicellular lifeforms to evolve. And yet methane and hydrogen have remained vital. These are some of the most energy-packed molecules and some of the most basic. I started to reflect. What struck me was the simplicity and universality of the early chemistry of Earth life, and how these elemental fuels that are good for micro-organisms are also good for humans too.

Methane is the major constitutent of Natural Gas. As one of the most common products of bacterial decomposition of ancient biomass, it is present in deposits of most fossil fuels, including coal seams. Most of this “Natural Methane” in the form of Natural Gas energy fuel produced today comes from fields where it is associated with petroleum oil. Natural Hydrogen is much less common, but research is showing that there could be significant resources in some places. Hydrogen is also a key component in some forms of biogas production – using the decomposing power of microbes to source environmentally clean fuel from harvested plant matter on the surface of the Earth.

Methane and hydrogen are involved in a range of chemistry. Chemical reactions with methane and hydrogen are relatively easy to reverse, because of their molecular simplicity. This makes them highly suited as energy vectors for storage, and the energy they give off when burned in oxygen makes them valuable for human industry, for domestic heating and in the power sector.

Although methane is widely used in energy systems, hydrogen has not been up until now, although there has been talk of a “Hydrogen Economy” eventually supplanting the use of hydrocarbon fuels. This is unlikely to come about in the very near future, although a transition away from fossil fuels is likely to be mediated through the use of Renewable Hydrogen from sustainable, aboveground resources. Why is hydrogen so important ? Because hydrogen chemistry can be used to recycle carbon gas – both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, making it a genuine possibility that one day carbon dioxide will be a vital component of energy systems, not a waste gas from combustion.

The most efficient way to use the energy in fossil fuels and biomass is to gasify them for use in combustion, and the common products of this “syngas” or synthesised, synthesis or synthetic gas are hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Convincing hydrogen and carbon-rich gas to become methane packs the chemical energy into a small space and easier and safer to store than hydrogen on its own. Burning methane in oxygen produces carbon dioxide, which, can be coaxed to combine with hydrogen to make more gas fuel.

So there we have it – Renewable Gas : methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Using spare Renewable Electricity from our future abundance of solar and wind farms we can make useful gas fuels that can be stored to burn on demand when the air is calm and the sun is not shining. Renewable Gas can cover for the intermittency and variability of other forms of Renewable Energy. To develop Renewable Gas will take some investment, but it will not be an extreme sport like mining ever-more-inaccessible unconventional fossil fuels like shale gas, tar sands and deepwater Natural Gas.