IN SOUTHERN Turkey, there are fires that never go out. The flames have been alight for millennia, but the source of the methane that fuels them was a mystery – until now.
The seeping gas feeds dozens of half-metre-high flames at the site, called Yanartas, Turkish for “flaming stone”. The flames are believed to have inspired Homer to create the fire-breathing Chimera in his Illiad.
But the gas fuelling the flames was not derived from biological processes – such abiotic methane is only supposed to form at temperatures much higher than conditions at Yanartas.
Now Giuseppe Etiope of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome, Italy, may have found the answer. Working with Artur Ionescu of the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, he has shown that ruthenium, a rare metal found in the igneous rocks beneath the site, can act as a catalyst, allowing methane to form in the lab at temperatures below 100 °C – similar to the temperatures at Yanartas (Geofluids, DOI: 10.1111/gfl.12106).
“These results demonstrate that abiotic methane production is possible at much lower temperatures than is typically suspected,” says Michael Whiticar of the University of Victoria in Canada.
The experiment is the first to show that the untreated form in which ruthenium occurs at Yanartas can act in this way.
“There could be considerable quantities of abiotic methane elsewhere in the world,” says Etiope. “We could be looking at a new source of hydrocarbons.”