Friday, 21 April 2017

BGS to release more open data...by Gerry Wildman

OpenGeoscience: Understand more about the geology of the UK

BGS is committed to releasing as much information as possible as ‘open’. For us this means that anyone can use and re-use data for free under the terms of the Open Government Licence. As with many other open data providers, all we ask is that any use of BGS data is acknowledged as such. We hope that by releasing information as ‘open’ we can encourage wider use, and that more people learn about the geology of the UK and it’s impacts on our lives, as well as to stimulate innovation and encourage the creation of products and services.

The BGS OpenGeoscience website. 
Since 2009 our platform for releasing data has been through ‘OpenGeoscience’. OpenGeoscience includes a variety of free to view/download resources including; access to 1:50 000 scale geological data, over a million boreholes logs, scanned versions of its map catalogue, access to our vast photo library and a host of web services and applications.

So far, OpenGeoscience has been a huge success. We’ve had 250,000 downloads of our iGeology smartphone app, have jumped from delivering just a few thousand borehole scans, to over 1 million a year and see around 450,000 hits to our 1: 50,000 scale web map service each month. However, we want to go even further and have been working on a host of new open products and services for 2017. Highlights include:
  • Ability to view the full text from a wide range of BGS publications, including our memoirs and regional guides.
  • Downloadable, coarse-scale versions of our popular hazard datasets for Great Britain: GeoSure subsidence models and mining hazard (not including coal).
  • Open versions of our environmental chemistry GBASE data for the UK and the thickness of superficial deposits model for Great Britain.
  • Summary information and locations of landslides in Great Britain.
If you are unable to find what you’re looking for in OpenGeoscience, it may still fall under our commercial services. BGS reinvests the income from our chargeable services into maintaining both our commercial and open products. This sustainable business model helps us to continue to provide free access to our wide collection of geological data and information.

A selection of what is available on OpenGeoscience. From L-R: BGS Geology 625k,  G-BASE geochemical data and
offshore geochemistry.
We’re always keen for you to share your open data requests and stories with us. Contact us at digitaldata@bgs.ac.uk or follow us on twitter @BGSdata.


Friday, 14 April 2017

7 'eggs'-tremely tenuous links between geology and Easter...by Kirstin Lemon

As a geologist working a great deal with the public, I pride myself in being able to bring geology into absolutely everything. After all, geology is literally the foundation of everything! But when it came to writing a blog on the links between geology and Easter though, I have to admit that it wasn't as easy as it first appeared. So, I think you'll agree that some of these links between Easter and geology are somewhat tenuous, but it's all a bit of fun and it will hopefully provide a little bit of light entertainment after all of those Easter eggs.

1. Easter Island

Located in the SE Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is a remote and isolated island about 3,700km west of Chile. It is famed for its massive stone carvings of human-like figures known as Moai (more on those later) but it's story goes back much further. The island is an amalgamation of three overlapping shield volcanoes that erupted between about 780,000 and 110,000 years ago, and is part of a 2,500km-long chain of underwater volcanoes called the Easter-Salas y Gomez Seamount Chain.

2. Rano Raraku

Moai at Rano Raraku, Easter Island (Image: Wikipedia).
Rano Raruku is just one of several volcanic craters found on Easter Island (or Rapa Nui as it is also known). It is from this location that the majority of the famous stone carvings originate, and where the tuff (essentially consolidated volcanic ash) was quarried and sculpted before being transported elsewhere. Only around 50 of the 900 statues were carved from other rocks, namely basalt, trachyte and scoria, all of which were available locally. Rano Raraku is known as the Moai quarry and there are still nearly 400 statues remaining.

3. Easter Plate

We're nearly finished with Easter Island, but we couldn't move on without talking about the Easter Plate, a small tectonic plate or microplate in the SE Pacific. The Easter Plate is bounded on the west by the Pacific Plate and to the east by the Nazca Plate that are pulling apart from each other at the East Pacific Rise. The Easter Plate is not surprisingly named after Easter Island which is to the east of the microplate on the Nazca Plate.

4. EGG

So it's not a real Easter egg, or even a regular egg but 'Embed Google and Geology' (or EGG for short) allows you to use BGS data to create a custom geology or earthquakes map of the UK and embed it in your own website. Advanced users can even customise their maps by changing the size, show surface geology or earthquakes, change to map from satellite to road maps, and change the centre and map zoom. This neat, self-contained packaged is an easy way to add geology information to your website.

5. Easter Ross

The James Hutton Building with feature wall to the right of the entrance.
A loosely defined area to the east of Ross in the Highlands, Scotland, Easter Ross has been the focus of many geological papers and other publications. Some of its best known geology is its Middle Devonian sandstone that has been used in the façade of the James Hutton Building at the BGS headquarters in Keyworth (and part of the Geological Walk). The building incorporates a 'feature wall' with a stylized representation of Siccar Point, the location with which James Hutton is synonymous. Instead of the Upper Devonian Stratheden Group sandstones found at the famous locality in Berwickshire though, the 'feature wall' uses sandstone from the Black Isle Sandstone Group, from Balaldie Quarry, Fearn, in Easter Ross.

6. Rabbit Ears Peak

I couldn't let an Easter geology blog go without mentioning some form of Easter 'Bunny'. In this case, it is Rabbit Ears Peak, in the Rocky Mountains of northern Colorado, USA. The name comes from the distinctive double towers that resemble rabbit ears made up of volcanic material that erupted around 30 million years ago. Subsequent erosion has sculpted the peak into the 'rabbit ears' that you can see today. Unfortunately, I have no images that I can freely share but if you want to see what Rabbit Ears Peak looks like then have a look here.

7. Chocolate Rock Cycle

And finally, we couldn't finish off with at least some mention of chocolate. If you are left with a plethora of Easter eggs then instead of making the usual rice-krispie buns then why not use them to learn about the chocolate rock cycle, all thanks to this great resource produced by the Geological Society. You can find out about sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks all through the medium of chocolate; educational and edible!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

COST TU1206 Sub-Urban Conference, Bucharest...by Alex Donald

Attendees at the COST TU1206 Conference in Bucharest
The conference of the TU1206 Sub-Urban Action took place at the Faculty of Civil Engineering Technical University of Civil Engineering Bucharest on March 14-16th 2017.
 
The COST action, supported by the EU Framework Programme Horizon 2020, comprised a network of Geological Surveys, cities and research partners from 31 countries that worked together to improve how we manage the ground beneath our cities.

The culmination of four years of work, the video presentations are available on the www.sub-urban.eu website along with interviews of key participants across the sub-urban network.

Key outputs of the project include:
  • Opening up the Subsurface for the Cities of Tomorrow - A Working Group 2 report that considered practices and techniques on the themes of (1) Subsurface information and planning, (2) Data acquisition and management, (3) Geotechnical data and geohazards in city subsurface management, (4) Groundwater, geothermal monitoring and modelling, (5) Geotechnical modelling and hazards, (6) Subsurface geochemistry, and (7) Cultural Heritage.
  • 15 Short-term Scientific Mission reports that brought together experts from different disciplines and regions, across Europe and beyond, to foster collaboration and exchange knowledge.
  •  A toolbox to assist translating recommended methodologies, good practice and guidance into workflows that can be used by sub-surface experts, urban planners and decision makers. 

While the conference in Bucharest brought to a conclusion action TU1206 Sub-Urban the work doesn’t stop here. The www.sub-urban.eu website will continue to grow thanks to an enthusiastic network of members and will hopefully provide plenty of material for those of you interested in the Urban Sub-surface.

For further information on BGS’s work on Urban Geology see http://bgs.ac.uk/research/engineeringGeology/urbanGeoscience/home.html and http://bgs.ac.uk/research/engineeringGeology/urbanGeoscience/clyde/asknetwork/home.html

For more information on COST Sub-Urban contact Alex Donald

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

An exciting new development in soil phosphate oxygen isotope analysis...by Andi Smith

In early February, Andi Smith (Stable Isotope Facility) and Sammi Coyle (PhD student joint with The University of Nottingham and Scotland’s Rural College) visited collaborators at Rothamsted Research (North Wyke, Devon), to learn more about one of our most exciting stable isotope techniques developments. Rothamsted Research is a world-leading research centre in plant and soil science for sustainable agriculture. Here, Andi explains a bit more about their visit and why we should all be interested in phosphate oxygen isotope analysis...

Sammi and I visited Rothamsted Research, North Wyke in Devon to help us perfect a technique for extracting inorganic phosphate from soil samples, so we can analyse these for their oxygen isotope composition.

But firstly, why are we interested in isotopes of phosphorus?


Phosphorus is a key nutrient for all life, critical for the development of cells and functioning of DNA and RNA. It is therefore one of a few key elements which are fundamental for the development of all living things along with nitrogen and carbon. When these elements are lacking in the environment, they are often described as limiting nutrients. For this reason, modern farming practices have developed specific fertilisers which help increase the levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in the soil system. This has helped us drastically improve crop yields. However, where these nutrients are lost into streams and rivers, they can promote the growth of algae and damage, often delicate, natural ecosystems. It is therefore important to understand and trace how these nutrients behave when added into the soil system. This is where isotopes can play their part….

For many years, nitrogen cycling in soil systems has been characterised by the analysis of nitrogen (15N) and oxygen (18O) isotopes in nitrate (NO31-). However, phosphorus only has one stable isotope (31P), and until recently, it has only been possible to extract the 18O signature of phosphate (PO43-) in clean waters (e.g. seawater). However, ground-breaking work undertaken in 2010 at ETH Zurich has made it possible for us to extract inorganic phosphate from soils (which also have many organic phosphorus compounds), so we can now start to trace the phosphate cycle far more closely. It is this method for extracting inorganic phosphorus that we have been working on for the last week.

Extracting inorganic phosphate


Whilst quite complex and time consuming (so I don’t go into details here), the extraction technique is based around a few relatively simple principles.

At the first stage, soil samples are treated with acid to release the inorganic phosphate into solution. After this, there are several stages where phosphate compounds are precipitated out of solution and washed to remove any unwanted contaminants containing oxygen, which would interfere with the analysis. The final stage is to add a silver solution which precipitates with the phosphate to form silver phosphate crystals- it is these crystals we analyse for their oxygen isotope composition

From L-R: First the soil must be filtered to break up any large particles, a messy job; Filtering out the bright yellow APM
crystals, this is where all the phosphate has been trapped.

What’s next?


Now that we have a working method to use at the BGS’s Stable Isotope Facility, we hope to be able to work on a whole range of new projects for which this isotope technique is critical. We believe this technique will be invaluable to further our understanding of the interactions of fertilisers and soils systems (this is the focus of Sammi’s PhD) but that we could also apply this technique to studies of phosphate pollution, phosphate source tracing and potentially palaeoclimate reconstructions. Watch this space….

Sammi and I would both like to thank Dr Verena Pfahler and Dr Steve Granger for hosting us at Rothamsted Research and to The University of Nottingham and Scotland’s Rural College for sponsoring our visit. Sammi would also like to thank UoN and SRUC for co-funding her PhD project. We hope to have some great data for you soon!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Deploying and servicing a seismic network in Central Italy...by Simone Mancini

Seismicity map of the Amatrice-Norcia sequence updated on 20 January 2017.
From a scientific point of view, the seismicity that is hitting Central Italy presents itself as an unmissable opportunity for seismologists to analyse the triggering and the evolution of an earthquake sequence. From the tens of instruments installed in the affected area, a huge amount of data is being collected. Such a well-recorded sequence will allow us to produce a comprehensive seismic catalogue of events. On this big quantity of data, new algorithms will be developed and tested for the characterisation of even the smallest earthquakes. Moreover, they will enable the validation of more accurate and testable statistical and physics-based forecast models, which is the core objective of my PhD project.

The Central Apennines are one of the most seismically hazardous areas in Italy and in Europe. Many destructive earthquakes have occurred throughout this region in the past, most recently the 2009 Mw = 6.4 L’Aquila event. On August 24th, just 43 km North of the 2009 epicentre, an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 occurred and devastated the villages of Amatrice and Accumoli, leading to 298 fatalities, hundreds of injured and tens of thousands people affected. The mainshock was followed, in under an hour, by a Mw = 5.4 aftershock. Two months later, on October 26th, the northern sector of the affected area was struck by two earthquakes of magnitude 5.4 and 5.9, respectively, with epicentres near the village of Visso. To make things even worse, on October 30th the city of Norcia was hit by a magnitude 6.5 mainshock, which has been the biggest event of the sequence to date and the strongest earthquake in Italy in the last 36 years. Building collapses and damages were very heavy for many villages and many historical heritage buildings have reported irreparable damages, such as the 14th century St. Benedict cathedral. On January 18th, other four earthquakes of magnitude greater than 5 have been recorded near the villages of Montereale and Pizzoli, in the southern sector. Luckily, there have been no further fatalities since the very first event of August 24.

St Benedict's Cathedral (Norcia), erected in the late 14th century and completely destroyed after the
Mw 6.5 earthquake of 30th October.
Immediately after the first big event, an emergency scientific response team was formed by the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh, to support the rapid deployment of high-accuracy seismometers in collaboration with the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV). The high detection capabilities, made possible by such a dense network, will let us derive a seismic catalogue with a great regional coverage and improved magnitude sensitivity. This new, accurate, catalogue will be crucial in developing operational forecast models. The ultimate aim is to understand the potential migration of seismic activity to neighbouring faults as well as the anatomy of the seismogenic structure and to shed light into the underlying physical processes that produce the hazard.

Thanks to the quick response of the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) and SEIS-UK, 30 broadband stations have been promptly dispatched from Leicester and arrived in less than 48 hours in Rome. There, a group of 9 people composed by INGV and BGS seismologists, technicians and PhD students (including myself) from University of Bristol, Dublin Institute for Advanced Study (DIAS) and University of Ulster were ready to travel across the Apennines to deploy this equipment. The first days in Rome were all about planning; the location of each station was carefully decided so as to integrate the existing Italian permanent and temporary networks in the most appropriate way. After having performed the 'huddle test' in the INGV storage room, which involves parallel checking of all the field instrumentation in order to ensure its correct functioning, we packed all the equipment and headed to the village of Leonessa, a location considered safe enough to be used as our base camp (despite the village being damaged and partially evacuated after the 30th October event).

Preparing instrumentation for the huddle test in one of INGV's storage rooms.
In order to optimise time and resources, and to start recording data as soon as possible, we decided to split in three groups so that we could finish our work between the end of August and the first week of September. Each seismic station is composed of a buried sensor, a GPS antenna, a car battery, a regulator and two solar panels. The current deployment will stay for 1 year and will be collecting data continually. Each sensor had to be carefully buried and levelled to guarantee the highest quality of recording, which was a strenuous challenge when the ground was quite rocky!

Aside from the scientific value of the expedition, the deployment week was a great opportunity to get to know each other, share opinions, ideas and, of course, get some training in seismology! At the end, we managed to install 24 stations around an area of approximately 2700 km2.

As this type of seismic station didn’t have telemetry, each needed to be revisited to retrieve data. For this purpose, from October 17th, Dr David Hawthorn (BGS) and I flew to Italy again and stayed there for the following ten days to service the seismometers and to do the first data dump. Our goals were also to check the quality of the first month of recordings, to add a second solar panel where needed, and to prepare the stations for the forthcoming winter. To do that, a lot of hammering and woodworking was needed. We serviced all the sites, raising the solar panels and GPS antennas on posts, which were securely anchored to the ground, to prevent snow from covering them. The stations were all in good conditions, with just minor damages due to some very snoopy cows.

Left: Typical setting of our deployed stations. On the left, the buried sensor. Its cables, buried as well, connect it to the
 instrumentation inside the black box (a car battery, and a regulator). On the right, the solar panel (a second one was added in
 October service) and the white GPS antenna. Right: Dr David Hawthorn (BGS) servicing the stations – A second solar panel
 was added. Panels and GPS antennas were raised on posts anchored to the ground through timbers.
Typical setting of our deployed stations. On the left, the buried sensor. Its cables, buried as well, connect it to the instrumentation inside the black box (a car battery, and a regulator). On the right, the solar panel (a second one was added in October service) and the white GPS antenna. Dr David Hawthorn (BGS) servicing the stations – A second solar panel was added. Panels and GPS antennas were raised on posts anchored to the ground through timbers.

On October 26, just the night before leaving for Rome, we experienced first-hand the frightening feeling of a mainshock just below our feet. Both the quakes of that evening surprised us while we were inside a building; the rumble just few seconds before the quake was shocking and the shaking was very strong. Fortunately, there were no severe damages in Leonessa but many people in the village refused to spend the night in their own houses. Also, it was impressive to see the local emergency services response: only a few minutes after the first quake, policemen were already out to patrol the inner village checking for any people experiencing difficulties.

Throughout our car transfers from one site to another we frequently found roads interrupted by a building collapse or by a landslide, but we could also admire the mountains with a mantle of beautiful autumnal colours and the spectacular landscapes offered by the Apennines, like the Monte Vettore, the Gran Sasso (the highest peak in the Apennines) and the breath-taking Castelluccio plain near Norcia.

View of the Norcia Plain, near to the 24th August Mw5.3 and 20th October Mw 6.5 earthquake epicentres.
From my point of view, I learned a lot and really enjoyed this experience. I feel privileged to have started my PhD in leading institutions like the British Geological Survey and the University of Bristol and, at the same time, to be able to spend time in my home country (yes, I am Italian…) with such interesting scientific questions. What I know for sure is that we will be back there again.

Simone Mancini is a 1st year PhD student with the British Geological Survey and the University of Bristol. 

Monday, 6 March 2017

Starting my PhD with the British Geological Survey...by James Williams

Me standing on the front helideck of the ship in the
North Atlantic. 
Hello, my name is James and I have recently started my PhD at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Cardiff University and the British Geological Survey. During my PhD, I will investigate the mechanisms that have driven glacial retreat along the Antarctic Peninsula coastline over the last 2,000 years. In order to do this, I will utilise the geochemistry of diatoms collected from a suite of British Antarctic Survey sediment cores. Diatoms produce a hard shell (frustule) of silicate that is preserved in the sediment record, the geochemistry of which can be used as a proxy of glacial discharge and meltwater input to the ocean as a result of melting.

During the third year of my undergraduate degree, I studied at Stockholm's Universitet as part of the ERASMAS programme. It was here that I became fascinated with palaeoclimate, palaeoceanography and all things diatom! For my Bachelors thesis, I chose to reconstruct sea ice concentrations using marine diatom assemblages. It was whilst looking down the microscope at these beautiful, ornate, fossil algae that I decided that I wanted to pursue research within the field of palaeoclimate.

I have been very lucky during the beginning months of my PhD. In October, I attended the ‘Applications of Stable Isotope Geochemistry’ workshop at the Scottish University Environmental Research Centre laboratory in East Kilbride. Whilst there, I learned about some of the fascinating applications of stable isotope geochemistry beyond palaeoclimate. These applications include using stable isotopes in mineral exploration, ecology and (arguably the most fascinating) in reconstructing the movement of King Richard the 3rd across the United Kingdom during his lifetime. Moreover, participants were taken on a guided tour of the lab facilities, and were able to gain hands on experience of the preparation methods used for analysis of stable isotopes. I took part in the preparation of samples using the carbonate line, which involved some very exciting liquid nitrogen and a very hot hairdryer! The workshop was a fantastic opportunity to meet other like-minded early career stable isotope geochemists, and was rounded off with a tour to the very impressive, gargantuan, Accelerated Mass Spectrometer laboratory.    
 
From L-R: The Akademik Tryoshnikov in all her glory which was my home for the 4 week expedition from Bemerhaven
 (pictured) to Cape Town; the CTD wet lab and the Niskin Bottle rosette where I conducted most of my work.
In November, I took part in the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) Maritime University. The ACE cruise has been organized by the Swiss Polar Institute, with the aim of conducting science in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Islands. I boarded the Akademik Tryoshnikov, a Russian ice breaker, in the cold and grey of Bremerhaven and was bound for Cape Town. We set sail during storm Abigail, and I had to find my sea legs very quickly as we transited through the English Channel. Upon reaching the Atlantic Ocean, we began with the lecture series that formed the Maritime University. These lectures were a fantastic introduction to the various aspects of physical oceanography, ocean chemistry and biology that play a fundamental role in the climate system. As part of the seagoing University, I was able to shadow a scientist who conducted research in a field of my interest and assist in their lab work. Given my interest in diatoms and ocean chemistry, I naturally gravitated towards the Conductivity Temperature Depth (CTD) profiler. Everyday, at 8 am and 3 pm, I would go to the wet lab and prepare the Niskin bottles on the CTD rosette for deployment. These Niskin bottles are closed at specific depths within the water column, bring water samples from depth to the scientists onboard. I would then oversee the deployment of the rosette, and take my position of at the helm of the computer. The CTD was lowered to 500 m, whilst recording profiles of oxygen saturation, salinity, temperature and chlorophyll concentrations analysed, and the Niskin bottles closed on the return to the surface. I would then distribute the water samples to the scientists. Being the only geologist onboard, everyone was interested in just what it is that we do, and how we do it.

Southern Ocean diatoms. 
Upon returning to Cardiff, I have been reviewing the literature previously published from the Antarctic Peninsula, with the aim of placing my research into the context of the work already conducted. I have also spent time at BAS sampling cores, and learned the sample preparation methods for stable isotope analysis at Nottingham. In the coming weeks, I will be setting up the lab for cleaning diatoms at Cardiff and will be running my very first samples on the Stepwise Fluorination Line at BGS. Stay tuned over the coming months for updates on the progress of these first analyses, as well as some more insight into why scientists are concerned by melting glaciers along the Antarctic Peninsula, and how we can develop records of melting using diatom stable oxygen isotopes.    

My supervisory team consists of Jennifer Pike and Elizabeth Bagshaw (Cardiff University), George Swann (Nottingham University), Melanie Leng (BGS) and Claire Allen (BAS). James can be found on twitter using the handle @jameswilliams108


Monday, 27 February 2017

SIGMA training in Chile, the UK and Africa...by Leanne Hughes

Leanne demonstrating SIGMA in the field in Chile. 
Last month I undertook work which involved me being in three continents within a week. This is not bad going since I had only previously visited three in a lifetime! The first visit was to the geological survey of Chile (SERNAGEOMIN) and ENAMI the National Mining Company, this was part of a collaborative project with BGS to discover how we can use high resolution state of the art remote sensing imagery and elevation models to better define and understand geological problems for further study. For the interpretation of this data we used  virtual field reconnaissance software ‘GeoVisionary’ to enable a team of BGS and Chilean geologists to understand the virtual terrain as a group and record the interpretations as digital lines. This allowed the geologists to make decisions about which field sites needed a visit in order to constrain the remote interpretation. Once the field sites were identified, we flew to the north of Chile near Ovalle to field verify the interpretations using BGS SIGMA mobile.  SIGMA is a GIS-based geological mapping system, which spatially references geological observations interpretations and line work. It allowed us to collect a great deal of data into one system. The temperature in North Chile was in the mid-30s and very dry, there were lots of cactus with vicious spines – one small round variety stuck in my mind as the Chilean name translated as “A cushion for the mother-in-law”!

"A cushion for the mother-in-law"!
Whilst in the north, ENAMI showed us around the copper sulphate and silicate mines in the area and explained how viewing the workings in 3D would be useful to understand the relations of the different deposits. Once fieldwork was completed and we had collected as many interpretations as was practical, BGS and SERNAGEOMIN headed back to the head office in Santiago. By importing the SIGMA field observations into GeoVisionary we were able to discuss the interpretations and decide on what to indicate on the final geological map. The geological map was compiled in small teams who focused on areas of their expertise; I worked alongside Juan-Pablo to create a new geological interpretation of the area north of Ovalle. It was a privilege to have been able to contribute new interpretations and line work to one of their geological maps. At the end of the visit, we presented the work we had done to the department and discussed the merits of workflow we had used.

I then flew back to the UK to spend a few days setting up four tablet PCs to deliver SIGMA training the following week with Eimear Deady.

The third continent was Africa at the Liberian Geological Survey where we were delivering a course on digital geological mapping using SIGMA. I thought I was used to the hot weather after Chile but I was not ready for the hundred percent humidity and the sauna-like working environment in Liberia! With funding provided by the UK Government (DFID), a team from the BGS has been building capacity at the Liberian Geological Survey (LGS) so that staff there are better equipped to manage the country’s land-based mineral resources. The course involved a mixture of office-based training supported by practical exercises undertaken outside at various locations in Monrovia. Some of the office-based training was a little challenging. Several power cuts meant that being adaptable was key!

Classroom training (L) and teaching field skills (R) in Liberia. 
The initial few days of the course focused on familiarity with GIS and downloading the background data needed when undertaking mapping, such as aerial photographs and topographic maps. We then focused on field skills, such as finding your location on a map using triangulation and measuring dip/strike. The final exercises for the  LGS geologists was to then create a geological and topographical map of a compound in Monrovia which had a good outcrop of dolerite with jointed faces that could be measured. This utilised all the skills they had learned during the course.  At the end of the course, the trainees described what they had learned in a presentation to the Director of the LGS.

Overall, working in Chile (S. American Continent) and Liberia (African Continent) (with a few days in the UK (European Continent) between the two), were two very different experiences using SIGMA and provided me with a great opportunity to better understand the geology of these two countries.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Bye Bye to Jonathan Dean...by Jonathan Dean

At the end of February, Jonathan Dean will bid farewell to the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey to start a lectureship at the University of Hull, here he looks back on his time in Keyworth... 

I first came to the Stable Isotope Facility (part of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS) in 2010 as an undergraduate from the University of Nottingham to get experience of working in a laboratory. I subsequently moved on to do a PhD at Nottingham and over the next 3 years I was regularly back at BGS, analysing lake sediments for geochemistry from Turkey. We've now published a number of papers on the isotope work I undertook on those sediments, which we used to reconstruct how the climate of the Eastern Mediterranean region had changed between wet and dry over the past 13,000 years (See Dean et al. 2015a Dean et al. 2015b; Dean et al. 2015c).

In 2014, and after I completed my PhD, I started working at BGS as a 'Stable Isotope Apprentice', where I received training in a large variety of lab tasks including the analysis of organic matter in resource type studies for carbon isotopes and the analysis of oxygen isotopes in carbonates for palaeoclimate research. Following my training I was in an ideal position to apply for and obtain a 2 year post-doctoral post associated on a NERC funded grant based at BGS. For the last 2 years I have been analysing the chemistry of lake sediments from Ethiopia in order to reconstruct changes between wet and dry climate over the past several hundred thousand years in eastern Africa (see my update in 2015 on Geoblogy) and link these changes to the movement of hominins out of Africa. The climax of the project came in January this year when over 60 scientists from around the world gathered at Arizona State University in Phoenix to discuss progress of this international effort. We are aiming to test our hypothesis that changes in climate influenced the history of Homo sapiens and our predecessor species. We're hoping to start publishing our results within the next year, so watch this space!

Overall, what an amazing few years it has been, the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey has been a great place to work (and get training) and I hope to continue research collaborations for years to come! I am now looking forward to working as a lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Hull. Thanks to Chris Kendrick, Carol Arrowsmith, Hilary Sloane and Melanie Leng at the BGS who have supported me through the last 7 years.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Investigating Climate and Environmental Change in Eastern Australia (Part 2)...by Melanie Leng

The field team made up of researchers from University of Adelaide,
the Queensland government and Melanie Leng  (BGS/University
of Nottingham) and Andy Henderson (Newcastle).
In May 2016 Melanie blogged about her role in a project led by Dr John Tibby and Dr Cameron Barr (from University of Adelaide) on understanding climate change in eastern Australia. This is difficult because few archives of climate change exist in eastern Australia. The team developed a climate record based on the chemistry (carbon isotope ratios) of the broad-leaved paperbark tree, which they correlated to water stress. As a result of that research, Melanie was invited to the University of Adelaide to discuss future collaboration on recent climate change in eastern Australia and visit North Stradbroke Island which was the focus of the original study. Here Mel tells us about her trip…… 

NASA World Wind Landsat
montage of Stradbroke Island
courtesy of Wikipedia.  
Following on from our recent paper in Global Change Biology, I was invited to visit the University of Adelaide to see what expertise we at the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham could provide in studying recent climate change along the eastern Australia coastal margin. Climate change is a current hot topic in Australia as it potentially could lead to significant environmental and economic impacts in water security, agriculture, coastal communities and infrastructure. It is important to understand past climate change especially the causes of past increases in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

Scientists from the University of Adelaide are working on the past frequency of climate extremes by undertaking research from the records in lake sediments. The first week in Adelaide was spent in meetings, talking to researchers about their projects, but probably the most important was the work being done on North Stradbroke Island (locally referred to as Straddie). Straddie is the second largest sand island in the world (24 x 7 miles), and lies off the Brisbane coast. The sand island contains both large and small aquifers of water and where these aquifers intersect the sand surface they form small lakes. Sediments have accumulated in these lakes over tens and up to hundreds of thousands of years! We visited several of these lakes to discuss their potential to accumulate sediments (many contain 10s of metres of organic rich muds). These muds contain information through time, the oldest being at the bottom of sediment cores extracted from the lakes, while the youngest are at the top. We are (and will be) analysing some of these sediments for geochemical and biological parameters at the British Geological Survey. These parameters will tell us about changing water quality in the past that is related to water stress (or how dry the climate was in the past).

From L-R: Swallow Lake on Stradbroke Island, one of the contenders to provide a long climate history of eastern Australia;
Fieldwork on 'Straddie' Island, here testing the depth of the sediments within this (currently) dried up lake (Welsby Lagoon).
We visited several lakes including Swallow Lake (the site of the original work on the paperbark tree) as well as Brown Lake (perhaps it got its name from leaching of organic compounds from the peats as the sediments accumulated), and the remarkably resilient Blue Lake which is thought to be untouched by climate change and due to its spectacular setting has been hypothetically referred to as “God’s Bathtub” thanks to Cameron Barr.
One of the locals of a field notebook (note the scale), a fairly
harmless orb-weaver spider.
Through our future collaboration we hope that the team involving staff from the University of Adelaide, the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham will be able to make inferences about the controls (local, global, man-made) on the past and future climates of eastern Australia.

The fieldwork was headed by Dr John Tibby and Dr Cameron Barr but included staff from Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology and Innnovation, as well as Melanie and Dr Andy Henderson (University of Newcastle)

Melanie Leng is the Director of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS and University of Nottingham. Follow Mel on twitter @MelJLeng.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Improving the use of geoscience in brownfield redevelopment projects through a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship...by Darren Beriro

In January 2017, the Government released a consultation on its Industrial Strategy. The strategy places science, research and innovation as central pillars. In February, it published its housing white paper, which maintains brownfield redevelopment as one of its foundations. Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) geoscience, principally developed and delivered by British Geological Survey (BGS), crucially underpins these policies.


Brownfield sites are a foundation to UK Government housing policy

These political developments are exciting to BGS as well as to me personally because I have been awarded a NERC Knowledge Exchange (KE) Fellowship. The Fellowship will last for three years and aims to increase the impact of NERC geoscience in brownfield redevelopment projects. Knowledge exchange is a two way process where increased understanding and any associated benefits are expected for all parties. During the Fellowship I will evaluate how NERC stakeholders are using geoscience in brownfield projects and try to enhance its application wherever possible. This will help improve UK competitiveness at home and enhance the potential to export expertise.
Knowledge Exchange Methodology

NERC geoscience is all-encompassing and includes: i) data e.g. geological maps, 3D models and soil geochemistry; ii) spatial decision support tools e.g. the BGS SuDS dataset; iii) applied science e.g. bioaccessibility of potentially harmful substances in soils and sensor technology for measuring sub-surface contamination.


NERC geoscience is all-encompassing

During the Fellowship, I will engage with a range of stakeholders including:
  • Landowners
  • Developers
  • Geoenvironmental consultancies
  • Remediation contracting companies
  • Government
  • Regulators
  • Industry bodies
I am planning to hold regional workshops in the autumn & winter 2017/18 which I hope will improve participant understanding of NERC geoscience and how to optimise their use of it. The workshops will also explore the potential barriers and constraints that limit the impact of geoscience within the land redevelopment sector. This approach is an example of knowledge exchange being a two-way process.

Knowledge exchange is a two way process

The Fellowship will include work-based placements.  I will work directly with site redevelopment managers to identify where in the project life cycle NERC geoscience will have the most impact. The benefits to the economy, environment and society of each project will be monitored, quantified and will guide future work.

The results of the Fellowship will be published as technical case studies and made widely available. In addition, a design guide will help NERC and BGS utilise the results of the Fellowship, particularly in terms of understanding end-user needs and increasing the potential of co-design of future NERC geoscience projects and data.

I hope that relationships developed during the Fellowship will present new opportunities for future collaborative projects that flourish beyond the lifespan of this project.

My intention is to keep you up to date with examples of my knowledge exchange activities during the project via LinkedIn, Twitter (@BGSBrownfields) and BGS blogging at GeoBlogy.



Monday, 16 January 2017

Geochemistry Networking Event held in December 2016... by Ginnie Panizzo

On the 16th December 2016 the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG) held a Networking event between key female geoscience researchers the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the University of Nottingham (UoN). The main impetus behind the event was to encourage collaboration between Anne McLaren Research Fellows of the UoN from the Schools of Biosciences, Geography, Chemistry and Faculty of Engineering, with other female researchers at the BGS. The invitation was extended to other early and mid-career researchers at the School of Archaeology, due to the strong research linkages with the Stable Isotope Facility at BGS.

Women in geochemistry  

Close to 20 female scientists from the BGS and UoN attended the event. Dr Virginia (Ginnie) Panizzo, who organised the event, kicked off the workshop before introducing Prof Melanie Leng (the Director of the CEG) who provided an overall introduction to the CEG.

Networking and discussions

Delegates were given the opportunity to provide a brief introduction to their analytical specialities and research interests to the rest of the group, so as to facilitate discussions throughout the day. This proved a great success for many inter-disciplinary dialogues. Networking continued during and after lunch in informal break out groups before a tour of the BGS laboratories closed the day.

Insightful and worthwhile 

All delegates involved found it an insightful event and a great chance to meet other like-minded female geoscientists at the BGS and UoN. We hope that it will serve as a worthwhile kick-start to other such events for geoscientists alike between the two Institutions.

Please contact Dr Ginnie Panizzo if you are interested in future women in geochemistry networking. Ginnie is an Anne McLaren Research Fellow of the UoN and Visiting Research Associate at the BGS.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Geochemistry in Africa...by Michael Watts, Elliott Hamilton, Belinda Kaninga, Kenneth Maseka and Godfrey Sakala

Victoria Falls. 
Michael Watts and Elliott Hamilton returned to Africa to undertake two main tasks; (1) find a conference venue for the Society for Environmental Geochemistry 2018 international conference to be hosted in Victoria Falls, and (2) undertake fieldwork in the Zambian copperbelt as part of the Royal Society-DFID project.

We met up with Dr Godfrey Sakala (Zambian Agriculture Research Institute or ZARI) and Professor Florence Mtambanengwe (University of Zimbabwe) in Victoria Falls and viewed venues for hosting 150-200 people.  The location is ideally suited, with ample accommodation, conference facilities, transport connections, activities, is safe to walk around and of course the spectacle of Victoria Falls, which is a must see and a gentle introduction to Africa for the uninitiated.  A video was filmed to begin the promotion of the conference and signpost SEGH 2018 VicFalls which will appear on www.segh.net shortly.

Krigged geospatial map for chromium to identify locations
 for experimental plots. 
We moved onto Zambia with Dr Sakala and headed up to Kitwe in the Copperbelt to join Prof. Maseka from the Copperbelt University (CBU) to follow up on previous field collections in Mugala village where field characterisation identified specific plots for experimental trials to investigate the influence of soil management strategies, such as organic incorporation, liming, low tillage (Conservation Agriculture) on the uptake of metals deposited through dust onto agricultural soils from nearby mine tailings.  Elliott Hamilton will explain more in a follow-up blog about his PhD and some of the findings so far. Belinda Kaninga, one of our Royal Society-DFID PhD students has set out her first season field experiments as identified by the site characterisation and will bring the resultant soil and crop samples to BGS for analysis next May.

Both Elliott and Belinda are using the same location for experimental trials, with Elliott focussing on the control parameters for chromium (Cr) soil-to-crop transfer employing elemental speciation and isotope dilution for pot experiments using soil samples collected on this visit across the range of Cr concentrations and soil pH identified. These experiments will be undertaken at Sutton Bonington campus (University of Nottingham).  The processing of samples back in ZARI also allowed us to work with lab staff, review training needs and preparations for our upcoming purchase of Microwave-Plasma Atomic Emission Spectrometers in each of Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Belinda is investigating a broad panel of metals (Pb, Cu, Zn, Cd, Mn, Al, Ni) and the application of specific Conservation Agriculture methodologies and potential influence on the availability of metals for soil-to-plant uptake.  Belinda has conducted pot trials at the ZARI research station in Lusaka, but as mentioned, recently set up her field plots in collaboration with the village chief and local farmers which will run over two seasons.

Belinda Kaninga and one of her experimental plots.
A further project was initiated with Prof. Maseka and Dr Sakala to investigate the potential exposure to metals from dust inhalation from the Mugala mine tailings in the nearby village, comparing pathways of exposure from environmental samples through to biological samples from a biomonitoring collection (urine, blood).  The focus of the project will be a two-year MSc project undertaken by Lukundo Nakaona, in collaboration with the CBU Department for Environmental and Agricultural Sciences and Medical School, ZARI and BGS-UoN (CEG).  There are many other possibilities for environmental-health exposure and food security studies with our close partners at ZARI, CBU and UNZA (University of Zambia).  In particular, scope for GCRF (Global Challenges Research Fund) proposals to provide capacity strengthening in technical capability to cement the strong scientific activities of our partners both in Zambia, the wider Royal Society-DFID network in Zimbabwe and Malawi and with other partners in Kenya and Tanzania.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Assessing ground motion from space...by Kieran Parker

Diagram showing satellite image acquisition process to enable multiple
 images to be assessed. Source http://trussty-jasmine.blogspot.co.uk
Ground movement is an issue of global concern and one that regularly grabs the attention of the media due to its impact to public safety, property and infrastructure networks often necessitating expensive remedial action.

In Northern Ireland, ground movement is closely associated with slope instability, most notably on the margin and valley slopes of the Antrim plateau as well as surface subsidence in areas of historic mining. While most of the movement is natural there is also the human influence which exasperates or creates instability through social development and extractive legacy. The extent and form of surface motions can vary dramatically from location to location with a number of controlling factors. These movements are traditionally monitored with the placement of instrumentation around sites which have been causing persistent problems however these methods are costly, time consuming while also limited by resources only enabling a number of areas to be assessed over the long term.

Subsequently, there is a clear need for accurate assessment of ground motion for land use planning and development across areas suspected of being susceptible to movement along with a better understanding of the instigating factors and potentially the development of tools that will enable early warning to a catastrophic movement event.

Throughout 2016, the BGS Earth and Planetary Observation and Monitoring (EPOM) Team, Shallow Geohazards and Risks (SGR) Team and the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI), together with Queen's University Belfast (QUB) have been working on a research study to analyse the benefits of using satellite radar interferometry  (InSAR) techniques to remotely assess risk to infrastructure associated with ground movements in Northern Ireland. The project is analysing historical radar data available for 1992-2010 obtained from the European Space Agency (ESA) operated ERS1/2 and ENVISAT satellites.

The methodology works by processing of numerous images collected by the satellites during each repeat pass. Stacked together these images allows for the extraction of reflective targets and measure, to millimetre precision, surface displacement. A total of 127 images will be analysed throughout the project.

InSAR techniques have the capability to remotely monitor large areas which would enable a step change in techniques currently used by organisations to analyse risk to their infrastructure network.
Distribution of radar reflectors identified by processing satellite radar data aquired
from ERS 1/2 (left) from 1992-2000 and ENVISAT (right) from 2002-20.
The project team is working with five major stakeholders TransportNI (TNI), Northern Ireland Railway (NIR), Department for the Economy (DfE), Arup and Belfast City Council (BCC) to examine areas of slope instability and subsidence which have proven to be problematic in the past while also aiding the identification of others areas potentially at risk.

While the data coverage takes in an area of 3,000 km2, the project will focus closely at problematic sites identified by the stakeholders:
  • Site 1: North Belfast – A densely populated urban location, this area has been subject to shallow translation landslides with evidence of movement can be seen at Ligoniel Park and Throne Bend on the Antrim Road. 
  • Site 2: Belfast-Bangor Railway line – This section of rail line is positioned within steep sided cuttings prone to instability, particularly after periods of heavy and prolonged rainfall.
  • Site 3: Carrickfergus – The residential town contains eight abandoned salt mines which display continual subsidence. Over the past two decades a number of crown holes have appeared at various locations as a result of mine collapses resulting in the permanent closure of two public roads.
  • Site 4: Straidkilly, Antrim Coast Road (A2) – Positioned at the base of the Antrim Plateau, the A2 is a scenic route used extensively by the many coastal towns and villages as well as a high number of tourists. This section of road cuts through soft Jurassic clays and debris from the slide area has frequently reached the road increasing the risk to users and also leading to road closures.

Aerial photo of crown hole collapse at abandoned Maidenmount salt mine,
Carrickfergus 2001. The collapse generated a hole >100 meters in diameter
with 8 metre vertical displacement.  © Crown Copyright
Preliminary InSAR results display variable movements in many of the known landslide areas while also highlighting motions associated within areas of historic mining activity. The initial results have also identified a number of areas of interest which are displaying subsidence and surface heave potentially as a result of water abstraction, soil compaction and shrink swell processes. 

Newtownards, Co.Down showing significant subsidence
within the centre of the town. Raw ERS-1/2 satellite
data provided by ESA under grant id.32627.
These results were presented at a workshop held at Queens University Belfast in September 2016 where the stakeholders were given the opportunity to have a close look at the data in areas where their assets may be affected by ground motion. With each reflective point representing average annual motion over 100m x 100m ‘parcels’, the workshop enabled stakeholders to identify several sites each of greatest interest where the team will process the data further to increase the resolution by reducing the size of each parcel thus providing more precise results of ground movement leading to a more accurate assessment of the risk to the infrastructure network. Crucial for the stakeholder will be the identification of trends leading up to major movement.

The project team is currently working through the time series data from reflective points in areas of interest to analyse the variations of motion across the areas while also validating it with previously collected terrestrial and airborne data obtained by the stakeholders.

The potential outcome will be an enhanced capability to monitor and assess hazards associated with ground motion across the infrastructure network and for the stakeholders to implement regional scale hazard mapping using satellite technology to compliment terrestrial monitoring. This could see huge benefits in mapping and understanding geo-hazards allowing better informed engineering techniques to be considered, better targeting of sites while reducing the risk to people monitoring on unstable ground. Further outcomes from the project will be the capability to communicate the risk posed by ground movement and the development of an early warning system.

The project started in February 2016 and will run for 18 months, until July 2017.

Project: InSAR for geotechnical infrastructure: enabling stakeholders to remotely assess environmental risk and resilience (NERC Grants: NE/N013018/1 and NE/N013042/1)

Project Team:
Queen’s University Belfast (QUB)
Dr David Hughes, Dr Jenny McKinley, Dr Shane Donohue, Conor Graham

British Geological Survey (BGS) / Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI)
Dr Francesca Cigna, Dr Vanessa Banks, Kieran Parker, Alex Donald

The project is funded by NERC under the Environmental Risks to Infrastructure Innovation Programme (ERIIP). ERS-1/2 and ENVISAT raw satellite data is provided by ESA under grant id.32627. For further details contact Dr David Hughes at Queen's University Belfast or Dr Francesca Cigna.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Transitioning from Flame AAS to MP-AES: benefits and advantages...by Emmanuel Chidiwa Mbewe

Emmanuel with 'A Practical Guide to ICP-MS'.
My name is Emmanuel Chidiwa Mbewe from Lilongwe University Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi. I work as a Chief Technician in Soil Sciences within the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Currently I am undergoing a Commonwealth Professional Scholarship with the Inorganic Geochemistry team within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, during which I have experienced modern methods of laboratory analyses, systems of work, including quality assurance and overall management of tasks and data to demonstrate confidence in data output.  I also attended a meeting in London for the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission (CSC) Fellows Connect 2016 which enabled me to meet other Fellows based around the UK, to share my experiences and celebrate my fellowship. 

Before I depart for Malawi at the end of the week, I will attend the 2016 International Fertiliser Society Agronomic Conference in Cambridge to hear talks on agronomic techniques relevant to aspects of fertiliser recommendation development, the role of fertilisers in reducing emissions, grassland nutrition, and precision farming.  There will also be a presentation on the work of Grace Manzeke, the first winner of the Brian Chambers award.

MP-EAS Demonstration


A highlight of my stay was when I had a chance to visit the Reading Scientific Services on the University of Reading campus along with Elliott Hamilton, where we received a demonstration on the use of MP-AES 4210 by Agilent Technologies, in advance of a transition from use of Flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (FAAS) to Microwave Plasma Atomic Emission Spectroscopy (MP-AES), which will be purchased from the Royal Society-DFID project. Both of these techniques are used for elemental determination in a variety of sample materials including soil and plant samples.

Major Advantages


Emmanuel using the MP-AES.
The MP-AES will be purchased and delivered in February 2017. The major advantages of FAAS are:
  • reducing operating cost, increasing safety;
  • improving analytical performance through improved sensitivity and;
  • multi-element capability and ease of use.
The largest running cost for level entry spectroscopy is the source gases. FAAS uses a combination of air and acetylene, or nitrous oxide and acetylene. These two gases are provided in cylinders which regularly needs replenishment. These gases are quite expensive in developing countries like Malawi. On the other hand, the 4210 MP-AES uses nitrogen that is extracted straight from the air to sustain the plasma. The Agilent 4107 Nitrogen generator coupled to an air compressor supplies all the free nitrogen required at greater than 99.5% purity. This leads to dramatic reductions in operating costs over the life of the instrument.

Safety Concerns


When using FAAS there are concerns about safety aspects because of the use of acetylene and nitrous oxide. The major concerns cover a wide range; from storage and handling of cylinders, to the use of the flame in the instrument. Presence of a naked flame is of a concern in laboratories especially those that handle organics, which are highly flammable, for this reason FAAS have to be attended to all the time. All these issues are eliminated with the use of 4210 MP-AES.

Improved Performance


Improved analytical performance comes about because there is an improvement of in detection limits for MP-AES compared to FAAS. In the case of some elements such as Ca and V this can be an order of magnitude lower. An improvement in detection limits implies that it is possible to analyse elements that otherwise have high detection limits in FAAS like phosphorus and boron. In other words, elements that cannot be analysed on FAAS are easily analysed on the MP-AES. It can also analyse up to 10 minutes at a time using the same sample volume as an FAAS. Selenium can be measured using hydride generation within the same analytical run as other samples. The higher temperature of nitrogen plasma atomisation /ionisation also improves the linear range and stability compared to FAAS.

When it comes to ease of use in MP-AES, this results from the fact that with the hotter plasma source of 4210 MP-AES, chemical interferences that are encountered in FAAS are eliminated. This means that the element specific sample preparation required on FAAS is not needed which greatly simplifies the sample preparation process.

Change from FAAS to MP-AES


With the benefits highlighted above, I look forward to moving from using the FAAS to using the MP AES.  The challenge that awaits me on my return to Malawi, is to prepare the laboratory building services in time for delivery of the instrument, which promises to vastly improve our current capability for elemental analyses, whilst keeping costs down. I won’t be alone in this challenge, partners on the Royal Society-DFID project will also be receiving an MP-AES in Zambia and Zimbabwe in February to March and we will share the training experience through collaboration and regular interaction, with support from the sales company (Chemetrix) in South Africa and colleagues from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (BGS-University of Nottingham).

Many thanks to Agilent and Reading Scientific Services for hosting the demonstration of the MP-AES. Thanks also to Robert Thomas who donated 50 of his textbooks ‘Practical Guide to ICP-MS – a tutorial for beginners’.  These textbooks will be given to students and technicians within the Royal Society-DFID network, as well as other partner organisations in Africa.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

First Year of my PhD: Generating a better understanding of the UK’s shale gas...by Patrick Whitelaw

Shale samples from our core store.
The shale industry is rapidly changing, with large developments such as the first fracking licenses being awarded since I started my research. However still relatively little is known about the UK’s shale gas potential and how much focus should be placed the industry’s development. With the research I am currently undertaking aiming to help shape and direct the government’s legislation on a controversial industry. 

Initially my PhD started with a wide range of training, learning to use the machinery and conduct the experiments that will form the core of the next four years. These include hydrous pyrolysis where shale samples are heated up under intense pressures to simulate subsurface conditions. High pressure methane adsorption, to understand the potential of shale to adsorb methane, and consequently how much methane can be extracted from it and surface area and porosity measurements to calculate the pore volumes of shales which when correlated with methane adsorption can provide information about their gas holding potential.  Determining the maturity of the shale (how far along the gas production lifeline they are) with vitrinite reflectance has been ongoing, as this is a skill that takes years to master. 

High pressure volumetric analyser for high pressure
methane isotherms.
I have continued work on immature Rempstone shale samples from the midlands which have not yet produced oil and gas. Using hydrous pyrolysis sequential experiments, the amount of gas generated by these samples over a lifetime of subsurface conditions has been calculated, and using data from the high pressure methane adsorption experiments, which correlate well with the pyrolysis, a much better estimate of the amount of methane these shales are able to produce has been formed. Currently this data is getting written up for publication, hopefully in a high impact journal. 

Using the method developed on the Rempstone samples, I am aiming to see similar results with different shales from northern England near in Lancashire, the area where the fracking licences have been awarded. Initial sampling of two shales from the Grange Hill and Preese Hall (the first prospective shale well drilled in the UK) wells was carried out with samples from a wide variety of depths taken from BGS core stores. Unfortunately many of these samples contained high levels of pyrite preventing many forms analysis. The pyrite prevents vitrinite reflectance as it is too bright, as well as causing the samples to be unsafe when heated up to high temperatures as the formation of sulphur dioxide can cause an dangerous explosion. New samples were however collected either handpicked Grange Hill samples that contain low levels of pyrite or samples from a new Becconsall well. Initial testing has been carried out on the samples and selection for and development of hydrous pyrolysis experiments has begun. 

In February I will be presenting for the first time at the Geological Society Conference in London. This should provide a great opportunity to meet people in both academia and corporate environments who have similar interest in the field, as well as showing off our results which have been very promising up to this point. Hopefully by this time as well the paper detailing our results will be finished and on its way to being published in a high impact journal.

High temperature hydrous pyrolysis experiment.
After the return of the Christmas break I will begin my maturation experiments of the samples collected from the Becconsall and Grange Hill wells using the shallower samples with a series of hydrous pyrolysis experiments. Once experimental maturation is completed I will then compare how well this mimics the natural maturation of these shales, by comparison with the deeper cores.  This should show how accurate the experimental maturation process is as and if any adjustments need to be made, while also providing gas production data for these cores.