The gradual wasting of plant-tissue in the formation of peat, lignite, coal, etc., may be estimated as averaging for peat, 20 to 30 per cent.; lignite, 30 to 50 per cent.; coal, 50 to 70 per cent.; anthracite, 70 to 80; and graphite, 90 per cent. of the original mass. The evolved products ultimately represent the entire organic portion of the wood--the mineral matter, or ash, being the only residuum. These evolved products include both liquids and gases, and by subsequent changes, solids are produced from some of them. Carbonic acid, carbonic oxide, nitrogenous and hydrocarbon gases, water, and petroleum, are mentioned above as the substances which escape from wood-tissue during its decomposition. That all these are eliminated in the decay of vegetable and animal structures is now generally conceded by chemists and geologists, although there is a wide difference of opinion as to the nature of the process.
It has been claimed that the evolved products enumerated above are the results of the primary decomposition of organic matter, and never of further changes in the residual products; i.e., that in the breaking-up of organic tissue, variable quantities of coal, anthracite, petroleum, marsh gas, etc., are formed, but that these are never derived, the one from the other. This opinion is, however, certainly erroneous, and the formation of any or all the evolved products may take place throughout the entire progress of the decomposition. Marsh gas and carbonic acid are seen escaping from the surface of pools where recent vegetable matter is submerged, and they are also eliminated in the further decomposition of peat, lignite, coal, and carbonaceous shale. Fire damp and choke-damp, common names for the gases mentioned above, are produced in large quantities in the mines where Tertiary or Cretaceous lignites, or Carboniferous coals or anthracites are mined. It has been said that these gases are simply locked up in the interstices of the carbonaceous matter and are liberated in its excavation; but all who have worked coal mines know that such accumulations are not sufficient to supply the enormous and continuous flow which comes from all parts of the mass penetrated.
We have ample proof, moreover, that coal, when exposed to the air, undergoes a kind of distillation, in which the evolution of carbonic acid and hydrocarbon gases is a necessary and prominent feature.
The gas makers know that if their coal is permitted to lie for months or years after being mined, it suffers serious deterioration, yielding a less and less quantity of illuminating gas with the lapse of time. So coking coals are rendered dry, non-caking, and valueless for this purpose by long exposure.
Carbureted hydrogen, olefiant gas, etc., are constant associates of the petroleum of springs or wells, and this escape of gas and oil has been going on in some localities, without apparent diminution, for two or three thousand years. We can only account for the persistence of this flow by supposing that it is maintained by the gradual distillation of the carbonaceous masses with which such evolutions of gas or of liquid hydro-carbons are always connected. If it were true that carbureted hydrogen and petroleum are produced only from the primary decomposition of organic tissue, it would be inevitable that at least the elastic gases would have escaped long since.
Oil wells which have been nominally exhausted--that is, from which the accumulations of centuries in rock reservoirs have been pumped--and therefore have been abandoned, have in all cases been found to be slowly replenished by a current and constant secretion, apparently the product of an unceasing distillation.
In the valley of the Cumberland, about Burkesville, one of the oil regions of the country, the gases escaping from the equivalent of the Utica shale accumulate under the plates of impervious limestone above until masses of rock and earth, hundreds of tons in weight, are sometimes thrown out with great violence. Unless these gases had been produced by comparatively recent distillation, such explosions could not occur.
In opening a coal mine on a hillside, the first traces of the coal seam are found in a dark stain in the superficial clay; then a substance like rotten wood is reached, from which all the volatile constituents have escaped. These appear, however, later, and continue to increase as the mine is deepened, until under water or a heavy covering of rock the coal attains its normal physical and chemical characters. Here it is evident that the coal has undergone a long-continued distillation, which must have resulted in the constant production of carbonic acid and carbureted hydrogen.
A line of perennial oil and gas springs marks the outcrop of every great stratum of carbonaceous matter in the country. Of these, the most considerable and remarkable are the bituminous shales of the Silurian (Utica shale), of the Devonian (Hamilton and Huron shales), the Carboniferous, etc. Here the carbonaceous constituent (10 to 20 per cent.) is disseminated through a great proportion of inorganic material, clay and sand, and seems, both from the nature of the materials which furnished it--cellular plants and minute animal organisms--and its dissemination, to be specially prone to spontaneous distillation. The Utica shale is the lowest of these great sheets of carbonaceous matter, and that supplies the hydro-carbon gases and liquids which issue from the earth at Collingwood, Canada, and in the valley of the Cumberland. The next carbonaceous sheet is formed by the great bituminous shale beds of the upper Devonian, which underlie and supply the oil wells in western Pennsylvania. In some places the shale is several hundred feet in thickness, and contains more carbonaceous matter than all the overlying coal strata.
The outcrop of this formation, from central New York to Tennessee, is conspicuously marked by gas springs, the flow from which is apparently unfailing.