"Fossil fuels developed from ancient deposits of organic material, and thus can be thought of as a vast store of solar energy" that was converted into plant matter by photosynthesis, he explains. "Using published biological, geochemical and industrial data, I estimated the amount of photosynthetically fixed and stored [by ancient plants] carbon that was required to form the coal, oil and gas that we are burning today."
Dukes conducted the study while working as a postdoctoral fellow in biology at the University of Utah. He now works for the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Global Ecology on the campus of Stanford University in California.
How the calculations were done
To determine how much ancient plant matter it took to eventually produce modern fossil fuels, Dukes calculated how much of the carbon in the original vegetation was lost during each stage of the multiple-step processes that create oil, gas and coal.
He looked at the proportion of fossil fuel reserves derived from different ancient environments: coal that formed when ancient plants rotted in peat swamps; oil from tiny floating plants called phytoplankton that were deposited on ancient seafloors, river deltas and lakebeds; and natural gas from those and other prehistoric environments. Then he examined the efficiency at which prehistoric plants were converted by heat, pressure and time into peat or other carbon-rich sediments.
Next, Dukes analyzed the efficiency with which carbon-rich sediments were converted to coal, oil and natural gas. Then he studied the efficiency of extracting such deposits. During each of the above steps, he based his calculations on previously published studies.
The calculations showed that roughly one-eleventh of the carbon in the plants deposited in peat bogs ends up as coal, and that only one-10,750th of the carbon i
Contact: Lee Siegel
University of Utah