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Herrings and the Origin of Petroleum

Nature volume 131, page 578 (22 April 1933) | Download Citation



IT would seem at first a far cry from a modern herring catch to petroleum genesis, but a recent discovery off the coast of Alaska proves this to be by no means the case. Some twenty or thirty years ago a boat loaded with herrings was wrecked off Admiralty Island, Alaska, and recently samples of the sea deposits, near to where the wreck occurred, were dredged up and sent to the United States Geological Survey in order that an analysis could be made of an unusual waxy substance which they contained. The investigation was in charge of Dr. R. C. Wells of the Survey, who proved that the wax was a complex compound formed of decomposition products of the fat in the fish, combined with calcium and magnesium salts of the sea-water. It was further found that high-temperature distillation of this wax gave rise to an oil having affinities with petroleum. In all theories of organic origin of petroleum the most difficult part to understand is precisely how the original substance underwent conversion into the hydrocarbon oil which we recognise in crude petroleum and, while we may visualise the environment under which these changes took place, the actual chemical mechanism involved is far more difficult to conceive.

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