Titan's missing ethane: From the atmosphere to the subsurface

Ashley E. Gilliam*, Abraham Lerman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The second most abundant component of the present-day Titan atmosphere, methane (CH4), is known to undergo photolytic conversion to ethane (C2H6) that accumulates as a liquid on Titan's surface. Condensation temperature of ethane is higher than that of methane, so that ethane "rain" may be expected to occur before the liquefaction of methane. At present, the partial pressure of ethane in the atmosphere is 1E-5 bar, much lower than 1E-1 bar of CH4. Estimated 8.46E17 kg or 1.37E6 km3 of C2H6 have been produced on Titan since accretion. The Titan surface reservoirs of ethane are lakes and craters, of estimated volume of 50,000 km3 and 61,000 km3, respectively. As these are smaller than the total volume of liquid ethane produced in the course of Titan's history, the excess may be stored in the subsurface of the crust, made primarily of water ice. The minimum porosity of the crust needed to accommodate all the liquid ethane would be only 0.9% of the uppermost 2 km of the crust. The occurrence of CH4 and liquid C2H6 on Titan has led to much speculation on the possibility of life on that satellite. The aggregation of organic molecules in a "primordial soup or bullion" depends in part on the viscosity of the medium, diffusivity of organic molecules in it, and rates of polymerization reactions. The temperatures on Titan, much lower than on primordial Earth, are less favorable to the "Second Coming of life" on Titan.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)252-258
Number of pages7
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016


  • Atmospheres, chemistry
  • Prebiotic chemistry
  • Titan, atmosphere
  • Titan, surface

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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