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 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 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 Kieran Parker

Diagram showing satellite image acquisition process to enable multiple
 images to be assessed. Source
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 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 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.