Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Narratives of Maturation: The Bildungsroman vs. Thermal Maturation of Hydrocarbons


How is the concept of thermal maturation of hydrocarbons in shales similar / not similar to a Bildungsroman?

Can the narrative employed to explain the process of thermal maturation, together with all its attendant assumptions, be applied to fiction? Or, to biographical narratives?

It would be easy to say that this is simply an exercise in tracking analogies. I think that it can be more than that. What we can examine are the underlying assumptions that inform human maturation, and geochemical maturation. We can also look at which we privilege -- do we give preferential treatment to the process? Or, the qualities that accompany each stage? What do we consider to be the triggering factors? What are the elements that are necessary for maturation? Because the Bildungroman is such a well-known narrative form, and such a well-trod genre, it is not a bad idea to start with the narrative of thermal maturation, in a rather skeletal form.

Thermal maturation:

The "immature" state is a shale that contains a high carbon content. Kerogen is a mixture of organic chemical compounds that make up a portion of the organic matter in sedimentary rocks.

Typically, it's an organic-rich shale. "Immature" signifies that the shale is in a relatively untransformed state. It is shale. Nothing has broken free from it -- and, the chemical that can eventually transform to hydrocarbon (methane to the more complex alkanes) has not yet undergone pyrolysis, etc.

Value judgment: "Immature" is valueless, except in its function as a "seal" over a porous rock that functions as a sponge -- it holds liquids (like oil) -- and the seal creates a trap for the oil.

Process is everything, especially when it involves trial by fire: How does natural gas emerge from carbon-rich shale? The key is maturation.

What kind of maturation? It's thermal. In other words, the temperatures must ascend to the point that the shale breaks down, physically and chemically -- it starts to become more fissile, have fractures (which function as conduits for the newly formed gas). The shale starts to change chemically -- the kerogen transforms, and starts to break down.

This sounds very straightforward until you realize that that triggering mechanism -- heat flow -- has to be at an ideal rate. Otherwise, metamorphosis takes place and the shale transforms into hard, non-hydrocarbon bearing metamorphic rock such as slate.

If the heat flow happens too quickly and intensely, any hydrocarbons that might have started to form combust. They burn off. They're simply gone.

If the heat flow is too mild, and the rate of heating is too slow, there may be a bit of in-situ methane, but not in commercial quantities, and it will be hard to recover because it's possible that fractures did not form.
Application to literary narratives:

1. Maturation requires a triggering event, and the event is never pleasant.

2. Heat is part of the equation -- not a low heat, or a fiery flash-point sort of flame-out. It takes time. It's slow-cooked. The heat is constant and it lasts a long time.

3. Application of heat (discomfort) has to be constant and continuous. Episodic heat, as well as episodic tectonic activity (movement of the earth) -- both are necessary in order to liberate the gas and to create rocks that have fractures through which the gas can move.

4. Too much or too little will result in a failure to mature correctly -- too much heat means a destruction of the organics. Too little means that nothing happens -- just a seemingly endless stasis. Paralysis -- emotional, physical, psychological.

Underlying parallels -

The Bildungsroman looks ahead to the end-point -- the making of the writer / artist, and at formative events.

The assumption that maturation is a process.

The assumption that maturation is linear and not reversible.

These are a few thoughts -- more to come.