There is widespread evidence that petroleum originates from biological processes1,2,3. Whether hydrocarbons can also be produced from abiogenic precursor molecules under the high-pressure, high-temperature conditions characteristic of the upper mantle remains an open question. It has been proposed that hydrocarbons generated in the upper mantle could be transported through deep faults to shallower regions in the Earth’s crust, and contribute to petroleum reserves4,5. Here we use in situ Raman spectroscopy in laser-heated diamond anvil cells to monitor the chemical reactivity of methane and ethane under upper-mantle conditions. We show that when methane is exposed to pressures higher than 2 GPa, and to temperatures in the range of 1,000–1,500 K, it partially reacts to form saturated hydrocarbons containing 2–4 carbons (ethane, propane and butane) and molecular hydrogen and graphite. Conversely, exposure of ethane to similar conditions results in the production of methane, suggesting that the synthesis of saturated hydrocarbons is reversible. Our results support the suggestion that hydrocarbons heavier than methane can be produced by abiogenic processes in the upper mantle.
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We thank K. Litasov, Y. Fei, J. C. Crowhurst, M. Somayazulu, V. Struzhkin, R. Cohen, D. Foustoukos, J. Montoya, T. Strobel and R. J. Hemley for valuable information, comments and discussions. We thank S. Sinogeikin for help with X-ray diffraction experiments. A.K. acknowledges the support from INTAS through YSF Ref. No. 06-1000014-6546. V.G.K. acknowledges the support from INTAS Ref. No. 06-1000013-8750. We acknowledge support by the US Department of Energy (DOE)/National Nuclear Security Agency through the Carnegie/DOE Alliance Center, NSF- EAR, the W. M. Keck Foundation and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Use of the HPCAT facility (Carnegie Institution of Washington) was supported by DOE-BES, DOE-NNSA (CDAC), NSF, DOD–TACOM and the W. M. Keck Foundation. Use of the Advanced Photon Source was supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, under Contract No. W-31-109-Eng-38.
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Kolesnikov, A., Kutcherov, V. & Goncharov, A. Methane-derived hydrocarbons produced under upper-mantle conditions. Nature Geosci 2, 566–570 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo591
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