Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Like oil and coal, this means that it is, essentially, the remains of plants and animals and microorganisms that lived millions and millions of years ago. But how do these once living organisms become an inanimate mixture of gases?
There are many different theories as to the origins of fossil fuels. The most widely accepted theory says that fossil fuels are formed when organic matter (such as the remains of a plant or animal) is compressed under the earth, at very high pressure for a very long time. This is referred to as thermogenic methane. Similar to the formation of oil, thermogenic methane is formed from organic particles that are covered in mud and other sediment. Over time, more and more sediment and mud and other debris are piled on top of the organic matter. This sediment and debris puts a great deal of pressure on the organic matter, which compresses it. This compression, combined with high temperatures found deep underneath the earth, breaks down the carbon bonds in the organic matter. As one gets deeper and deeper under the earth’s crust, the temperature gets higher and higher. At low temperatures (shallower deposits), more oil is produced relative to natural gas. At higher temperatures, however, more natural gas is created, as opposed to oil. That is why natural gas is usually associated with oil in deposits that are 1 to 2 miles below the earth’s crust. Deeper deposits, very far underground, usually contain primarily natural gas, and in many cases, pure methane.
Natural gas can also be formed through the transformation of organic matter by tiny microorganisms. This type of methane is referred to as biogenic methane. Methanogens, tiny methane-producing microorganisms, chemically break down organic matter to produce methane. These microorganisms are commonly found in areas near the surface of the earth that are void of oxygen. These microorganisms also live in the intestines of most animals, including humans. Formation of methane in this manner usually takes place close to the surface of the earth, and the methane produced is usually lost into the atmosphere. In certain circumstances, however, this methane can be trapped underground, recoverable as natural gas. An example of biogenic methane is landfill gas. Waste-containing landfills produce a relatively large amount of natural gas from the decomposition of the waste materials that they contain. New technologies are allowing this gas to be harvested and used to add to the supply of natural gas.
A third way in which methane (and natural gas) may be formed is through abiogenic processes. Extremely deep under the earth’s crust, there exist hydrogen-rich gases and carbon molecules. As these gases gradually rise towards the surface of the earth, they may interact with minerals that also exist underground, in the absence of oxygen. This interaction may result in a reaction, forming elements and compounds that are found in the atmosphere (including nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, argon, and water). If these gases are under very high pressure as they move toward the surface of the earth, they are likely to form methane deposits, similar to thermogenic methane.