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Smectites or three-layer expanding clays promote the thermal decomposition of long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons to produce hydrocarbons of lower molecular weight. Smectites are believed to act as acid catalysts through the dissociation of water, thus promoting carbonium ion reactions. When sedimentary organic matter, isolated as kerogen from suspected petroleum source rocks, is pyrolyzed in the laboratory, long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons are in the pyrolyzate, commonly in abundance. When the source rock contains smectite and is pyrolyzed, the pyrolyzate has significantly less high molecular weight aliphatic hydrocarbons and more lower molecular weight hydrocarbons.
Mixtures of kerogens with quartz, silica, alumina, calcium carbonate, kaoline, or illites not containing smectite-illite mixed layer clay, yield pyrolyzates more similar to those of the kerogen alone, i.e., the range of hydrocarbons in the pyrolyzates is broad including those of high molecular weight. This is interpreted to be due to a lack of catalytic activity of these minerals as compared with the catalytically active smectite. The catalytic effect of smectite is observed particularly when the concentration of sedimentary organic matter in the source rock is relatively low, amounting to less than about 2% total organic carbon. Smectites in sediments with a modest or low amount of organic matter are critical regarding the type petroleum generated, exemplified by the gas condensates f the northern Gulf of Mexico basin and Indonesia. Consequently, it is concluded that smectitic argillaceous sediments containing less than approximately 2% organic carbon are poor sources of oil, although they may be productive of gas and gas condensate.
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