Electrical energy sources for organic synthesis on the early earth

Christopher Chyba, Carl Sagan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


In 1959, Miller and Urey (Science130, 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-17
Number of pages15
JournalOrigins of life and evolution of the biosphere
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1991
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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