Thermodynamic Equilibrium and the Inorganic Origin of Organic Compounds

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Science  05 Aug 1966:
Vol. 153, Issue 3736, pp. 628-633
DOI: 10.1126/science.153.3736.628


Theoretical and experimental support is presented for the hypothesis that many organic compounds may form under conditions of thermodynamic equilibrium. This possibility must be considered along with special effects of selective catalysts, radiation, and degradation from biological matter, in explaining the origin of organic compounds in carbonaceous chondrites. Similar considerations may apply to solar nebulas and planetary atmospheres. The equilibrium distribution of organic compounds at temperatures between 300°K and 1000°K and pressures of 10-6 to 50 atm for the C—H—O system have been computed. At moderate temperatures and low pressures, conditions where graphite production is inhibited, aromatic compounds may form even in the presence of large excesses of hydrogen. Such conditions exist in the solar nebula and in the atmospheres of some of the major planets. Equilibrium concentrations of a large number of compounds at 1000°K with nitrogen, sulfur, and chlorine added to the system have also been determined. In some cases, a limited equilibrium method is employed in which those few compounds which form with the most difficulty are excluded from the computations, while representatives of all other families of compounds are included. This approach is shown to be useful in the interpretation of certain experimental data in which complete equilibrium has not been attained. We have also found that gases, activated to the plasma state by a high-energy radio frequency field, recombine on cooling to yield product mixtures which are in qualitative agreement with those predicted by the equilibrium computations. We believe that such products can be profitably studied as if at a metastable limited equilibrium.