Formation temperatures of thermogenic and biogenic methane

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Science  27 Jun 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6191, pp. 1500-1503
DOI: 10.1126/science.1254509

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Making of methane deep underground

Technologies such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” can now extract natural gas from underground reservoirs. Within the gas, the ratio of certain isotopes holds clues to its origins. Stolper et al. analyzed a wide range of natural gas, including samples from some of the most active fracking sites in the United States. Using a “clumped isotope” technique, the authors could estimate the high temperatures at which methane formed deep underground, as well as the lower temperatures at which ancient microbes produced methane. The approach can help to distinguish the degree of mixing of gas from both sources.

Science, this issue p. 1500


Methane is an important greenhouse gas and energy resource generated dominantly by methanogens at low temperatures and through the breakdown of organic molecules at high temperatures. However, methane-formation temperatures in nature are often poorly constrained. We measured formation temperatures of thermogenic and biogenic methane using a “clumped isotope” technique. Thermogenic gases yield formation temperatures between 157° and 221°C, within the nominal gas window, and biogenic gases yield formation temperatures consistent with their comparatively lower-temperature formational environments (<50°C). In systems where gases have migrated and other proxies for gas-generation temperature yield ambiguous results, methane clumped-isotope temperatures distinguish among and allow for independent tests of possible gas-formation models.

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