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


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 vent1 and in other crustal fluids supports the occurrence of an abiogenic source of hydrocarbons2,3,4. These abiogenic hydrocarbons are generally formed by the reduction of carbon dioxide, a process which is thought to occur during magma cooling5 and—more commonly—in hydrothermal systems during water–rock interactions, for example involving Fischer–Tropsch reactions and the serpentinization of ultramafic rocks6,7,8,9,10. Suggestions that abiogenic hydrocarbons make a significant contribution to economic hydrocarbon reservoirs2 have been difficult to resolve, in part owing to uncertainty in the carbon isotopic signatures for abiogenic versus thermogenic hydrocarbons4,10. 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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Figure 1: Plot of δ13C values of individual n-alkanes against carbon number for gas samples from Kidd Creek mine, and for thermogenic gases from southwest Ontario natural-gas fields29.
Figure 2: Plot of δ13C values of individual n-alkanes against carbon number.
Figure 3: Plot of δ13C versus δ2H values for C1–C4 for the Kidd Creek samples, and for thermogenic gases from southwest Ontario natural-gas fields29.


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This study was supported in part by Falconbridge Mining Ltd and by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We thank N. Arner and N. VanStone, and the Geology Office at Kidd Creek mine (P. Olson, A. Coutts, R. Cook) for providing geological information and assistance with underground field work.

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Sherwood Lollar, B., Westgate, T., Ward, J. et al. Abiogenic formation of alkanes in the Earth's crust as a minor source for global hydrocarbon reservoirs. Nature 416, 522–524 (2002).

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