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Electrical energy sources for organic synthesis on the early earth

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In 1959, Miller and Urey (Science 130, 245) published their classic compilation of energy sources for indigenous prebiotic organic synthesis on the early Earth. Much contemporary origins of life research continues to employ their original estimates for terrestrial energy dissipation by lightning and coronal discharges, 2 × 1019 J yr−1 and 6 × 1019 J yr−1, respectively. However, more recent work in terrestrial lightning and point discharge research suggests that these values are overestimates by factors of about 20 and 120, respectively. Calculated concentrations of amino acids (or other prebiotic organic products) in the early terrestrial oceans due to electrical discharge sources may therefore have been equally overestimated. A review of efficiencies for those experiments that provide good analogues to naturally-occurring lightning and coronal discharges suggests that lightning energy yields for organic synthesis (nmole J−1) are about one order of magnitude higher than those for coronal discharge. Therefore organic production by lightning may be expected to have dominated that due to coronae on early Earth. Limited data available for production of nitric oxide in clouds suggests that coronal emission within clouds, a source of energy heretofore too uncertain to be included in the total coronal energy inventory, is insufficient to change this conclusion. Our recommended valves for lightning and coronal discharge dissipation rates on the early Earth are, respectively, 1 × 1018 J yr−1 and 5 × 1017 J yr−1.

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Chyba, C., Sagan, C. Electrical energy sources for organic synthesis on the early earth. Origins Life Evol Biosphere 21, 3–17 (1991).

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  • Nitric Oxide
  • Dissipation Rate
  • Organic Synthesis
  • Coronal Discharge
  • Point Discharge