Pregnanes as molecular indicators for depositional environments of sediments and petroleum source rocks
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Steroids with unconventional side chains have increasingly been applied as diagnostic markers for geological source and age assessments. However, one of the most distinctive characteristics, the abnormal abundance of pregnane and homopregnane in ancient sediments and petroleum, remains unresolved. Higher pregnane and homopregnane, as well as C23–C26 20-n-alkylpregnanes, relative to the regular steranes were observed in samples collected from different petroleum basins in China. These included Precambrian marine carbonate-derived petroleum (NW Sichuan Basin), Lower Paleozoic marine marl derived crude oils (Tarim Basin), and Eocene hypersaline lacustrine carbonate source rocks and associated petroleum (Bohai Bay Basin). However, all of the samples have many common biomarker characteristics, such as pristane/phytane ratios < 1, low amounts of diasteranes and high C29/C30 hopane (~0.6–1), C35/C34 hopane (mostly ≥ 1) and dibenzothiophene/phenanthrene (DBT/PHEN, mostly 0.5–1) ratios revealing a contribution from anoxic carbonate/marl source rocks deposited in restricted, clastic-starved settings. We suggest that 5α,l4β,l7β-pregnane and homopregnane, as well as their higher C23–C26 homologues, are geological products derived from steroids bound to the kerogen by a sulfurized side chain. Carbon or carbonate minerals are considered to be natural catalysts for this cracking reaction via preferential cleavage of the bond between C-20 and C-22. Similar distributions occur in the short chain analogues of 4-methylsterane, triaromatic steroid and methyltriaromatic steroid hydrocarbons, providing circumstantial evidence for this proposal. The ratio of pregnane and homopregnane to the total regular steranes and the ratio of C27 diasteranes to cholestanes can be sensitive indicators of sedimentary environments and facies. In general, high diasteranes and low pregnanes (with homologues) indicate an oxic water column or significant input of terrigenous organic matter in clay rich source rocks and some organic lean carbonate rocks. Low diasteranes with high pregnanes implies restricted, sulfur rich conditions, typical of anoxic carbonate source rocks. Furthermore, the two ratios may be useful to assess the variation of mineralogy and openness of source rock depositional settings.
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