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Oily end to leaf cuticle and algal walls.

Oily end to leaf cuticle and algal walls

Through a process involving heat, pressure and millennia, a menagerie of carbohydrates from ancient plants and animals ultimately became natural gas and petroleum. Scientists still don't understand the intricacies of the process, nor do they know specifically which ancient molecules rearranged into these fuels -- which in more recent times have spawned economic growth and international session.

At least part of crude oil -- the portion comprising long carbon chains -- may derive from a previously unrecognized class of large, degradation-resistant biological molecules present in the cell walls of certain algae and in the protective coating, or cuticle, of many plant leaves. That's the conclusion of Erik W. Tegelaar and his colleagues at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. They compared these biomacromolecules with oil's solic molecular precursor, known as kerogen -- an insoluble and varied mix of mostly huge and complex hydrocarbon molecules that makes up the largest reservoir of organic material on Earth.

When the researchers break up the large kerogen molecules by heating them and then analyze the molecular weights of the fragments with a mass spectrometer, they find fragment patterns that closely match the patterns from the leaf-and alga-derived macromolecules. The same cuticle molecules represent perhaps 1 percent of a living leaf but nearly all of the remaining material in fossil leaves, Tegelaar says. In addition, the researchers find the algal molecules--called algaenans--in living algae and in oil shale.

This and other evidence suggests that kerogen derives from "selectively preserved" macromolecules that resist degradation and that once played protective functions in organisms, says Tegelaar, now with Arco Oil and gas Co. in Plano, Texas.
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Title Annotation:origin of petroleum
Author:Amato, Ivan
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 8, 1990
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