How Oil Is Formed by Jeff Desjardins, Visual Capitalist

Does the oil we use today originate from the remains of dead dinosaurs?

No, but the actual answer is just as interesting.

The generally accepted theory is that today’s oil reserves come from organic materials that existed millions of years before dinosaurs roamed the earth. About 300 million years ago, these dead organic materials such as zooplankton and algae built up on the bottom of lakes and oceans in conditions where they couldn’t decompose. The organic matter then changed into kerogen, which eventually turned into oil through heat and pressure.

Today’s infographic further details how oil is formed, while also covering some of oil’s uses and history. It also mentions an alternate theory on how oil is formed, which we dive into deeper below.

How Oil is Formed

Courtesy of Jones Oil

How Oil is Formed – An Alternate Theory?

While the aforementioned theory on fossilized organic material is thought to explain the vast majority of Earth’s oil reserves, there is actually another theory on how oil is formed that has been around for over a century. If it were ever proved to be true, it would be a game-changer for how we think about the world and natural resources.

The theory of abiotic oil postulates that some oil on Earth originated from non-organic materials. In other words, it is made somehow by natural forces deep in the planet, or it was deposited on in the crust by meteorites. To be fair, it is true that hydrocarbons have been proven to exist in outer space, where there are no organic materials. It was also shown in 2009 that ethane and heavier hydrocarbons can be synthesized under the pressure-temperature conditions of the upper mantle.

The trouble with the theory? So far, abiotic oil has not been proven to exist on Earth in any economic quantities. Oil exploration geologists have also not been able to make any discoveries using abiotic theories, and many abiotic claims have been debunked as pseudoscience.

For now, this theory seems like a long shot, but it’s still interesting to think about.