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IU Scientists Search For Source Of New York’s Eternal Flame

It stays lit because of gas that seeps out of shale deposits deep underground and provides the flame constant fuel.

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Photo: Believes in everything... (Flickr)

It stays lit because of gas that seeps out of shale deposits deep underground and provides the flame constant fuel.

Scientists have typically viewed natural gas as a non-renewable energy source. But that might not always be the case, according to new research from Indiana University scientists.

Behind a waterfall in New York state, there’s a so-called “eternal flame” that burns naturally and does not go out. It stays lit because of gas that seeps out of shale deposits deep underground and provides the flame constant fuel.

Typically, scientists have assumed temperatures deep in the earth were so hot that they were breaking the shale rock and releasing the gas.

But Indiana University geological scientist Arndt Schimmelmann says that’s not true in this case.

“This flame and these seepages have occurred for millions of years in those areas and we know that the source rock, about 400 meters deep, is not very warm,” Schimmelmann says. “It should not even be able to produce much gas at this temperature, yet the gas is coming and it’s not being depleted. So our hypothesis is that a different mechanism is responsible for continuous gas generation at depth.”

Schimmelmann says he doesn’t know what that mechanism is, but more research will hopefully identify the cause.

Still, Indiana Geological Survey scientist Maria Mastalerz says the discovery likely won’t lead to more extraction of natural gas as an energy source because the geological features of places with this phenomenon are very different from the locations where companies are drilling for gas. Instead, she says the implications are much more important for climate change.

“Our role is to identify the places that these emissions occur and get some data on the level of emissions and the level of contribution to total methane emissions globall,” Mastalerz says.

Mastalerz says methane is a strong greenhouse gas, so understanding how much methane is released naturally into the atmosphere is key to understanding the future of climate change.

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