Did Crude Oil Rain From The Sky?

One of those ‘A’ shows up and causes a “Ding Ding!” connection to ‘B’ questions.

Frequently folks wonder where oil comes from. We’ve got the dinosaur juice folks ( really ancient algae sinking in shallow stagnant seas) and we’ve got the abiogenic folks who often assert it’s the byproduct of some kind of geologic process such as a FT conversion from the breakdown of subducting carbonate rocks.

On occasion the abiogenic folks will point at the methane lakes on Titan and say “See, it’s natural and needs no dead dinosaurs” (or algae).

Well, I’m going to propose a third possible for consideration. What if it IS fossil fuel (in that it is ancient in origin) but is abiogenic in origin; originally made by a process that is no longer happening? We could still see much of what we see today. Distribution in non-sedementary locations (as found by the abiogenic Russian school) yet not still being created (old and subject to depletion fossil source). What if we are hotter and more heavily subject to UV and that caused the methane lakes to become oil lakes?

A Crude Question

Step One: What is the size and chemical composition of crude oil, in gross terms?

It ranges from very light, to stuff like heavy asphalt. It is widely believed that the asphalt like stuff is the result of a long ‘cooking time’ in the rocks and / or evaporation of light ends. We also find natural gas which is essentially very light hydrocarbons.

On a semi-random web search I turned up this patent application that describes the typical weight, in Daltons, of crude oil molecules and notes that it often contains nitrogen.


Crude oil extracted from reservoir rock contain a number of undesired compounds, or contaminants. Reduction in the amount of sulfur compounds in automotive fuels and other refined hydrocarbons are required in order to meet environment concernsand regulations. These contaminants also adversely impact refinery operations, e.g., by poisoning catalysts.

Crude oils contain heteroatoms such as sulfur, nitrogen, nickel, vanadium and others in quantities that impact the refinery processing of the crude oils fractions. Light crude oils or codensates contain in concentrations as low as 0.01 W %. Incontrast, heavy crude oils contain as much as 5-6 W %. The nitrogen content of crude oils can range from 0.001-1.0 W %. The heteroatom contents of typical Arabian crude oils are listed in Table 1 from which it can be seen that the heteroatom content ofthe crude oils within the same family increases with decreasing API gravity, or increasing heaviness.

TABLE-US-00001 TABLE 1 Property ASL AEL AL AM AH Gravity, .degree. 51.4 39.5 33.0 31.1 27.6 Sulfur, W % 0.05 1.07 1.83 2.42 2.94 Nitrogen, ppmw 70 446 1064 1417 1651 RCR, W % 0.51 1.72 3.87 5.27 7.62 Ni + V, ppmw <0.1 2.9 21 34.0 67

The following abbreviations are used in Table 1: ASL–Arab Super Light; AEL–Arab Extra Light; AL–Arab Light; AM–Arab Medium and AH–Arab Heavy; W % is percent by weight; ppmw is parts per million by weight.

The heteroatom content of the crude oil fractions also increases with increasing boiling point and representative data is provided in Table 2.

TABLE-US-00002 TABLE 2 Fractions, .degree. C. Sulfur WT % Nitrogen ppmw C5-90 0.01 93-160 0.03 160-204 0.06 204-260 0.34 260-315 1.11 315-370 2.00 253 370-430 2.06 412 430-482 2.65 848 482-570 3.09 1337
A custom-built FT-ICR ultra high resolution mass spectrometer, equipped with a 9.4 Tesla superconducting magnet was used to characterize the crude oil and the upgraded products. The observed masses in the spectra of feedstock and product rangefrom 200 up to 800 Daltons for the three ionization modes employed. Neutral species. i.e., aromatic hydrocarbons and sulfur aromatic species were detected using the APPI ionization mode. Polar nitrogen and oxygen species were ionized by electrosprayin the positive and negative mode, respectively.

Aromatic hydrocarbon, sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen species are all identified in both feedstock and product. Mono-, di- and tri-sulfur species with a high degree of aromatic character, i.e., five to seven condensed aromatic rings, are found inthe feedstock, but are readily removed by the upgrading treatment. Molecules with fewer than five condensed aromatic rings are proportionally increased as a result of the upgrading process of the invention.

There is a real stew of chemicals, but a significant number of aromatic rings and a variable, but also significant, quantity of nitrogen included. The presence of nitrogen and sulphur is often taken to indicate biologic origin as those elements often are present in biological compounds. But is there another source?

On Solar System Bodies

Step Two: What happens elsewhere in non-biologic bodies?


Tholin [after the ancient Greek word θολός (tholós) meaning “not clear”] is a heteropolymer molecule formed by solar ultraviolet irradiation of simple organic compounds such as methane or ethane. Tholins do not form naturally on modern-day Earth, but are found in great abundance on the surface of icy bodies in the outer solar system. They usually have a reddish-brown appearance.

Tholins have also been detected in the stellar system of an eight-million-year-old star known as HR 4796A using the Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. HR 4796A is 220 light years from Earth.

“Triton tholin” and “Titan tholin” are nitrogen-rich organic substances produced by the irradiation of gaseous mixtures of nitrogen and methane such as that found in those moons’ atmospheres; Triton’s atmosphere is 99.9% nitrogen and 0.1% methane and Titan’s atmosphere is 98.4% nitrogen and the remaining 1.6% composed of methane and trace amounts of other gases.
These atmospherically derived substances are distinct from “ice tholin”, which is formed by irradiation of clathrates of water and organic compounds such as methane or ethane. The plutino Ixion is also high in this compound.

The surfaces of comets, centaurs, and many icy moons in the outer solar system are rich in deposits of Triton, Titan and ice tholins. The haze and orange-red color of Titan’s atmosphere and centaur-class planetoids are thought to be caused by the presence of tholins. Tholins may also have been detected in the protoplanetary disks of young stars; see HR 4796A. Some researchers have speculated that Earth may have been seeded by organic compounds early in its development by tholin-rich comets, providing the raw material necessary for life to develop; see Urey-Miller experiment for discussion related to this issue. Tholins do not exist naturally on current-day Earth due to the oxidizing character of the free oxygen component of its atmosphere ever since the Great Oxygenation Event around 2400 million years ago.

A theoretical model explains formation of tholins by the dissociation and ionization of molecular nitrogen and methane by energetic particles and solar radiation, formation of ethylene, ethane, acetylene, hydrogen cyanide, and other small simple molecules and small positive ions, further formation of benzene and other organic molecules, their polymerization and formation of aerosol of heavier molecules, which then coagulate and deposit on the planetary surface.

The term "tholin" was coined by astronomer Carl Sagan to describe the difficult-to-characterize substances he obtained in his Urey-Miller-type experiments on the gas mixtures that are found in Titan's atmosphere. It is not a specific compound but is a term generally used to describe the reddish, organic component of planetary surfaces.

Tholins formed at low pressure tend to contain nitrogen atoms in the interior of their molecules, while tholins formed at high pressure are more likely to have nitrogen atoms located in terminal positions.

Tholins can act as an effective screen for ultraviolet radiation, protecting the planetary surface from it.

A wide variety of soil bacteria are able to use tholins as their sole source of carbon. It is thought tholins may have been the first microbial food for heterotrophic microorganisms before autotrophy evolved.

One of the common assertions is that life had to evolve in the oceans due to the high UV levels on the surface. But what if that surface were protected by tholins?

We have this semi-ubiquitous stuff, that sure sounds a lot like oil, even down to color and having various nitrogen compounds in it. It is conducive to protecting life, and bugs in the soil today find it yummy. Hmmm… Oh, and the Dalton range is about the same as crude oil up to tar like ranges.

Tholin Formation on Titan

Tholin Formation on Titan

Original Image

And Life?

It may even be that the existence of life argues for such an early world form.


The PAH world hypothesis is a speculative hypothesis that proposes that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), assumed to be abundant in the primordial soup of the early Earth, played a major role in the origin of life by mediating the synthesis of RNA molecules, leading into the RNA world. As of yet, it is untested.

We have soil bacteria that are happy to live on dirty oil or even tholins. We have an existence proof of the stuff being made on other worlds today in a non-oxygen atmosphere. We have a plausible theory that life would more easily evolve in a world full of hydrocarbons. We know the early Earth was non-oxygen and only formed an oxygen atmosphere much later after life was well established. We know the early Earth had the needed materials in the early atmosphere and we know that UV was present prior to the oxygen atmosphere making Ozone to block the UV.

It looks to me like a very simple chain of causality would have the early Earth being rather like those other methane rich atmospheres. Complex hydrocarbons form, raining out, and forming underground reservoirs (rather like water does today). Life forms. Eventually our oxygen atmosphere forms and any hydrocarbons remaining in the atmosphere oxidize to CO2. We are left with the residual hydrocarbons deep underground in anoxic conditions.

In that context, it would mean that at one time we had oil raining from the sky, and it would imply that some of the present oil deposits are fossil deposits from that age. (Most likely oil in rocks younger than the Oxygen Event of about 2.5 Billion Years Ago would be from other sources such as biogenic or geologic, or was ancient oil that migrated to those locations after formation.) But do we really know how old various oil deposits might be? The present thesis is that it migrates from ‘source rocks’ to where we find it. Dating is complicated by that, and by soil radiation. As many locations (like Texas) are relatively young, the theory is that the oil is young too. But could it have simply “leaked up” from very deep and very old sources?

Could some of the oil have fallen as rain 2.5+ Billion Years Ago?

No, I don’t have an answer. Just an interesting question. ( I’m still pretty sure a lot of the oil is squashed and heated algae, and think some of it is FT Cooked Carbonate rocks run over mineral catalysts like zeolite. But I can’t see any reason why the early Earth would not have Organic Rain…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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14 Responses to Did Crude Oil Rain From The Sky?

  1. There is an implication from this of deeper (and more widespread) reservoirs being possible, and even likely. Interesting. Certainly the process is evidently common elsewhere, so the key would be to determine the effects of other early Earth conditions (such as the presence of abundant water, not generally part of the other hydrocarbon planetoids) on such formation. The temperature difference is also dramatic, and may be important.

    There may be much more oil than we think. This would not be good news for catastrophists, but should be well received by humans.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  2. Ian W says:

    As you state ” bacteria that are happy to live on dirty oil or even tholins”. These bacteria are particularly prevalent in the Gulf of Mexico where there are continual natural oil seeps. It was these bacteria that have made such short work of the major oil spills. The recent spill was going to ‘pollute all the beaches up the East coast of Florida carried by the Gulf Stream…”. Strangely, it didn’t even manage to pollute much of the Gulf and appears to have now been mainly consumed. Unfortunately, it is likely that the chemicals used as dispersants could actually kill the natural bacteria that eat the oil. .

  3. Pascvaks says:

    “Once upon a time, the World was flat and endless..” And, as far a everyone knew or cared, that was fine and dandy; the science of the day fits the facts as they are then known. Who knew? Science evolves; the more we know, the more we know. Things change, facts change, paradigms change, people change. How? Well, there’s always some yo-yo who seems to have a ‘different’ perspective, who’s always coming out with some new explaination for the mundane facts of life and the way nature operates –who’s often ridiculed or worse– but time tends to prove them right (in some way) on many a reflection. Not sure how or why this all happens, but it too seems to be a fact of life. Today, in our ‘modern’, ‘advanced’, ‘highly technical and scientific’ civilization we tend to appreciate these ‘gifted’ people more than ever before. We place them on high pedistals and glorify their teachings (that is, we do if they are the ‘correct’ type of ‘gifted’ people). There are still the idiots and mad-hatter types who come out with various pronouncements and claims, but we ignore them as much as possible. If they get to be too much the loud, painful pest we tend to ridicule and mistreat them and drive them into the wilderness. Really, when you think of the way things were and the way things are, we are so much more advanced than our stupid predecessors. More advanced by far.

    PS: I like the “It Rained From The Sky” idea!

  4. Tom Bakewell says:

    Then there is the Thomas Gold abiogenic formation of fossil fuels theory. We know elemental carbon is present in accumulations at crustal depths because we find diamonds in diatremes. We also know the earth is constantly outgassing hydrogen. So how do the two elements combine to create methane, the lightest hydrocarbon building block?

    There are perhaps only a dozen areas on the earth with truly massive hydrocarbn accumulations like Saudi Araba, Venezuela and the Pre Caspian basin. What worked in such a way to let these areas become such huge reservoirs?

    As I recall (hopefuly correctly) the volume of organic rock posited as the source for the large Saudi accumulations is not large enough to explain the know accumulations. I believe this observation has also been made about the Maracaibo basin.

    I’m a retired geophysicist so my knowledge of hydrocarbon genesis and accumulation is pretty light. I hope others with more experience in the relevant areas wil pipe up and offer more concise understanding.

  5. adolfogiurfa says:

    Water cycle it is not closed but open: cosmic rays are composed (90%) of protons (Hydrogen nucleii – not little pebbles as astronomers, those who name stars, believe-), then they react with Ozone to form WATER.
    @E.M. Do you remember Velikovsky´s Worlds in Collision?:
    The book proposed that around the 15th century BCE, Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet or comet-like object, passed near Earth (an actual collision is not mentioned). The object changed Earth’s orbit and axis, causing innumerable catastrophes which were mentioned in early mythologies and religions around the world. Fifty-two years later, it passed close by again, stopping the Earth’s rotation for a while and causing more catastrophes. Then, in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, Mars (itself displaced by Venus) made close approaches to the Earth; this incident caused a new round of disturbances and disasters. After that, the current “celestial order” was established. The courses of the planets stabilized over the centuries and Venus gradually became a “normal” planet.
    These events lead to several key statements:
    Venus must be still very hot as young planets radiate heat.[4]
    Venus must be rich in petroleum gases, and hydrocarbons.[5]
    Venus has an abnormal orbit in consequence of the unusual disasters that happened.


  6. adolfogiurfa says:

    Don´t forget the Fischer–Tropsch process for making synthetic oil:

  7. p.g.sharrow says:

    Adolfo forgot to mention that Velikovsky also called for hydrocarbon rains as a part of his astrophysics theory in that book. These based on very old histories and myth. Velikovsky was right on the formation of the Earth-moon pair, the conditions on Jupiter and Venus long before modern science discovered and accepted those facts. Very interesting read. pg

  8. R. Shearer says:

    Mass spectrometry is inherently limited in its application range. For instance, heavy paraffins do not ionize and are therefore not detected. That says, this theory could explain the presense of biomarkers, which FT synthesis cannot. To my knowledge, no crude oil has been found that does not contain biomarkers.

  9. R. Shearer says:

    You might like this thesis. Here is Chapter 2. http://thesis.library.caltech.edu/138/4/Chapter2.pdf

  10. w.w.wygart says:

    Very interesting post E.M. I like this kind of thinking.

    Myself, I’m a yes/and kind of guy. I see reason to suppose that all of these different hypotheses of hydrocarbon formation may be possible in explaining at least certain hydrocarbons, but see nothing to suppose that they are mutually exclusive. Different hydrocarbons may have different formation processes and different geological histories. Eventually we [science] will sort this out.

    All of that said, I also see no reason to continue to beholden ourselves to a bunch of people who simple do not seem to be able to play nice with ANYONE, in order to assure our continued supply of the crude stuff. I’m very much a natural gas to Thorium kind of guy at the moment.


  11. adolfogiurfa says:

    OT:M 7.2, Maule, Chile
    Date: Sunday, March 25, 2012 22:37:06 UTC
    Sunday, March 25, 2012 06:37:06 PM at epicenter
    Depth: 30.00 km (18.64 mi)

  12. Scarlet Pumpernickel says:

    My feeling is life really is a galactic infectious disease. It works best underground, in fact most life on earth is underground, in fact 90% of the biosphere is underground, because life exists 4km++ underground all the way around the globe, that’s much more then the 0-100m (a tall tree) around the surface and oceans (though oceans go a bit deeper) but it’s not as dense as underground. Then asteroids/comets spread the life around from one planet to another once it’s infected the solar system. I don’t see a need for life to “start” on earth. It came from outside sources. That gives life a much longer time period to develop. We can see life live in every environment, cold hot, radioactive, eating different elements as fuel source. In fact the inner warmth of the earth underground is much more stable then the surface which has so many changes in climate and gets wacked by a rock very often in geological time. If we do go to Mars we will find life underground I think. Titan and maybe Enceladus’too? Or even Io?

    Great article above BTW

  13. E.M.Smith says:

    @Keith DeHavelle:

    It would provide a ‘source’ for the Russian abiogenic theory oil and it would explain the reservoirs in places like the Gulf of Mexico that seem to be refilling from ‘further down’…

    @Ian W:

    Interesting how the “scare stories” disappeared” almost as fast as the oil. Expect them to come back as Urban Legends of massive oil “lurking” somewhere in the gulf…

    At the time, I predicted a fishing boom in a few years as it causes a bloom of food up the food chain, starting with the bugs and then with the worms that eat them which has only now been documented:



    Yours for more picturesque speech ;-)

    “Painting by tongue”…

    @Tom Bakewell:

    Many of the large hydrocarbon deposits are found at subduction zones. California, for example. (Folks forget that we were a major oil producer for a while, before they basically stopped the drilling. Near my home town is a major natural gas field. I used to drive by the well heads some times… There are still oil wells near Bakersfield and even some off the coast of Santa Barbara. Wouldn’t you love to own the wells that were in place when other folks were forbidden to pump out any of your oil? Monopoly, got to love it…)

    Saudi is at an interesting place, geologically. Look at:

    and you will see it sits on it’s own little plate, being subducted… Now if oil is in large puddles fairly deep, think it might be squeezed up where the pimple is breaking the most?…

    Interesting point about the diamonds. Note also the large CO2 release from volcanoes…


    I used to think him a bit daft. How could planets move around like that! Lately I’ve found out that orbits are not inherently stable… Maybe I need to read his stuff again…

    @P.G. Sharrow:

    Glad you like it.

    @R. Shearer

    We’ve also found archaic life down many km into the earth. As they like to eat oil, the biomarkers can also be from a ‘layer of life’ in the shallow parts where we drill and suck out the oil. Never needing to drill truly deeply as the oil rises.
    Very interesting thesis too…


    Glad you liked it. I, too, am of the ‘all of the above’ type. We know algae can decay to make oil. We know carbonate via FT can make oil with iron or mineral catalysts at the pressures and temperatures in subduction zones. We know hydrocarbons form in primitive atmospheres with UV. I see no reason to “pick one” when we know they all happen.

    The real takeaway is that hydrocarbons form really easily. Even now.

    Don’t get me started on Nat Gas and Thorium… Were I in charge we’d have a thorium fueled reactor program or three AND a nuclear process heat driven Nat Gas to Liquids (gasoline, Diesel, Jet fuel) program with a mandate to be totally self sufficient in 4 years and funding already given to the providers and under their control (i.e. no political change can defund it.).

    Gasoline would cost $2 / gallon or less. For at least 50 years. THEN we might have to use coal instead at $2.50 / gallon…

    @M. Simon:

    Ah, yes, the refilling wells…

    First off, we only get out about 1/2 the oil we know is there. Some ‘rearrangement’ is expected. It also says future recovery can be almost as much as we’ve already recovered… if more slowly.

    Second, some wells refill with a different kind of oil… Older and less biomarked. One such well in the Gulf of Mexico had the source traced back to a channel to a deeper area (that could not be visualized well). Theories on it range from “abiogenic and perpetual formation” to “a deeper source pool with a connection but still fossil and limited”. No way to tell. My vote is for ‘abiogenic’. At the depths involved, the old (i.e. accepted standard) theory was that any existing oil would be thermally decomposed and destroyed, so no need to ever drill that deep. That’s now been proven wrong by several ultra deep wells producing boat loads of oil.

    So if it’s not broken down… perhaps the pressures are enough to cause synthesis from the CO2 known to be even deeper down. FT depends on a heat / pressure product. Deeper you go, you get more heat and pressure. At some point, it’s going to hit crossover… And we don’t have a lot of lab experience under those conditions with mineral catalysts…


    I’m pretty sure that life will be ubiquitous. Perhaps not on the really frozen places (unless a novel form with liquid methane cellular plasma) but anywhere with water, even underground water.

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