Hydrous pyrolysis of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and implications for the origin of PAH in hydrothermal petroleum

Thomas M. McCollom, Bernd R.T. Simoneit, Everett L. Shock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are found at high concentrations in thermally altered organic matter and hydrothermally generated petroleum from sediment-covered seafloor hydrothermal systems. To better understand the factors controlling the occurrence of PAH in thermally altered environments, the reactivities of two PAH, phenanthrene and anthracene, were investigated in hydrothermal experiments. The compounds were heated with water at 330 °C in sealed reaction vessels for durations ranging from 1 to 17 days. Iron oxide and sulfide minerals, formic acid, or sodium formate were included in some experiments to vary conditions within the reaction vessel. Phenanthrene was unreactive both in water alone and in the presence of minerals for up to 17 days, while anthracene was partially hydrogenated (5-10%) to di- and tetrahydroanthracene. In the presence of 6-21 vol % formic acid, both phenanthrene and anthracene reacted extensively to form hydrogenated and minor methylated derivatives, with the degree of hydrogenation and methylation increasing with the amount of formic acid. Phenanthrene was slightly hydrogenated in sodium formate solutions. The hydrogenation reactions could be readily reversed; heating a mixture of polysaturated phenanthrenes resulted in extensive dehydrogenation (aromatization) after 3 days at 330 °C. While the experiments demonstrate that reaction pathways for the hydrogenation of PAH under hydrothermal conditions exist, the reactions apparently require higher concentrations of H2 than are typical of geologic settings. The experiments provide additional evidence that PAH may be generated in hydrothermal systems from progressive aromatization and dealkylation of biologically derived polycyclic precursors such as steroids and terpenoids. Furthermore, the results indicate that PAH initially present in sediments or formed within hydrothermal systems are resistant to further thermal degradation during hydrothermal alteration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)401-410
Number of pages10
JournalEnergy and Fuels
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1999
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemical Engineering(all)
  • Fuel Technology
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology


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