Abiotic synthesis of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on Mars

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57 Scopus citations


Thermochemical calculations of metastable equilibria are used to evaluate the stability of condensed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in cooling thermal gases and hydrothermal fluids on ancient Mars, which are roughly similar to their terrestrial counterparts. The effects of temperature, pressure, the extent of PAH alkylation, and the relative stability of PAHs and alkanes are considered. Inhibition of methane and graphite formation favors synthesis of metastable mixtures of hydrocarbons from aqueous or gaseous CO, CO2, and H2 below 200°-300°C. High-temperature quenching of H2 and CO in volcanic and impact gases and dynamic hydrothermal fluids also favor the synthesis of hydrocarbons. In addition, an excess of CO in cooling systems relative to equilibrium makes the synthesis from CO and H2 more favorable energetically than from CO2 and H2. Both the CO-H2 reactions through Fischer-Tropsch (FT) type processes and the CO2-H2 reactions could be catalyzed by magnetite. Volcanic gases and hydrothermal fluids related to mafic and ultramafic magmas and rocks are more favorable for FT type synthesis than those associated with oxidized Fe2O3-bearing rocks and regolith. We conclude that PAHs and aliphatic hydrocarbons on Mars and Earth could be formed without the contribution of biogenic carbon. Some PAHs could be formed because of pyrolysis of other hydrocarbons formed earlier by the FT type synthesis or other processes. If the PAHs found in the ALH 84001 martian meteorite formed together with other hydrocarbons through FT type synthesis, it may be possible to bracket the temperature of the synthesis. The approach presented here can be generalized to study the synthesis of hydrocarbons in terrestrial volcanic and hydrothermal processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1998JE000627
Pages (from-to)14033-14049
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Planets
Issue numberE6
StatePublished - Jun 25 1999
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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