PhD opportunities for 2019 are now open

All our doctoral training opportunities are through Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP) or Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT). We do not fund individuals and you will usually apply directly through the host university or DTP or CDT. Eligibility: NERC studentships are bound by the Research Councils UK Grant Terms and Conditions including residency and minimum qualifications. Doctoral Training in Environmental Research in the UK provides a useful summary of these.

Opportunities for PhDs starting in 2019 are listed by BGS science area below. New opportunities are added as they are made available so please check our site or Twitter @DocBGS regularly.

Advancing the development and application of spatial decision support tools for the sustainable reuse of brownfield land

Science Area: Geoanalytics and Modelling

Title: Advancing the development and application of spatial decision support tools for the sustainable reuse of brownfield land

BGS supervisor: Dr Darren Beriro

University supervisor: Prof Fred Coulon

DTP: CENTA, Cranfield University

Project description

Project Highlights

  • Development of new spatial decision support tools to bring brownfield land back into beneficial use
  • Driving innovation in digital land-use planning
  • Using innovative numerical modelling and multi-criteria decision analysis methods to enhance the value and understanding from large spatial data sets
  • An opportunity to undertake your PhD based at the British Geological Survey, with access to world class environmental science facilities
  • CASE funding and industry partners WSP, Groundsure Ltd. and Homes England
  • 3 month industry placement to gain relevant work experience


This is a CASE PhD studentship which means direct funding and involvement from three industry partners: WSP, Groundsure Ltd. and Homes England. The PhD is for 3.5 years including 3 months in industry.

This CASE PhD studentship is intended to produce a major step forward for the sustainable reuse of brownfield land by developing innovative spatial decision-support tools using multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) methods. Tools will be trialled and developed to quantify sub-surface constraints including soil and groundwater contamination and land instability.

Currently disparate spatial datasets and data architecture support the land-use planning system. A range of formats, resolutions and types of data are held by various stakeholders, making unified and systematic geo-processing difficult. Gaining intelligence from large environmental datasets is a key challenge for modern society that underpins the UK Industrial Strategy (Infrastructure and AI & Data) (BEIS, 2017). Even more so when the challenge relates to building new homes and businesses on post-industrial brownfield land, another key UK Government policy (House of Commons, 2016; BEIS, 2017). The Government target is to build 300,000 new homes per year for the next 20 years, where brownfield land will be prioritised.

Innovation in digital planning is facilitating a step change in the planning system to speed up the delivery of new homes (Future Cities Catapult, 2016). This CASE PhD studentship is designed to provide the scientific knowledge and understanding needed to advance this area for risk-based brownfield land redevelopment.

New approaches to spatial decision-making for brownfield redevelopment will be produced by working with end-users including WSP and Groundsure Ltd., (CASE partners) and Homes England (Industry Advisor). Example applications include estimating soil and groundwater remediation costs for large urban areas, site-based maps of the geotechnical properties of soil and their suitability for certain types of building foundations and multi-hazard constraints mapping. Common to each is the spatial data processing and which algorithms are selected to describe relationships between the datasets and the problem being evaluated – this is MCDA and where the scientific challenge lies.

The student will work with industry, government and academia to co-design, co-develop and co-deliver innovative spatial decision support tools to solve current challenges facing the widespread reuse of brownfield land. Project outputs will be directly applicable to the UK but also provide significant export opportunities, especially for official development assistance countries.


The student will become familiar with landuse planning decision-making and risk-based brownfield redevelopment. She/he will collect, analyse and evaluate relevant spatial datasets, identify potential gaps and opportunities. A detailed review of MCDA methods and applications will inform the direction of the research. The student will work with the CASE partners and other end-users to co-design the research questions being tested. The student will co-develop and deliver an interface/dashboard for the outputs using state-of-art visualisation tools for risk communication. A three month placement will be completed with the CASE partners to enhance understanding of their application of the research.

Presentations at national and international conferences will enhance their understanding of the end-user community and raise the profile of the research. The student will be expected to produce at least one peer-reviewed publication. The methods selected for this research will enhance the science impact of the research and increase international export potential.

References/background reading

Parliament UK. 2018. UK Parliament. [Online]. [1 November 2018]. Available from:

Future Cities Catapult. 2018. Future Cities Catapult. [Online]. [1 November 2018]. Available from:

Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy. 2017. UK Industrial Strategy. [Online]. [1 November 2018]. Available from:

The Town and Country Planning (Brownfield Land Register) Regulations 2017. [Online]. [1 November 2018]. Available from:

Cipullo S., Snapir B., Prpich G., Campo P., Coulon F. 2019. Prediction of bioavailability of complex chemical mixtures through machine learning models. Chemosphere, 215: 388-395.

Cipullo S., Negrin I., Claveau L., Snapir B., Tardif S., Pulleyblank C., Prpich G., Campo P., Coulon F. 2019. Linking bioavailability and toxicity changes of complex chemicals mixture to support decision making for remediation end point of contaminated soils. Science of the Total Environment, 650: 2150-2163.

Pastre G., Griffiths Z., Val J., Tasiu A.M., Camacho-Dominguez V., Wagland S., Coulon F. 2018. A decision support tool for enhanced landfill mining. Detritus. 01: 91-101.

Emkes H., Coulon F., Wagland S. 2015. A decision support tool for landfill methane generation. Waste Management. 43: 307-318

Okparanma R.N., Coulon F., Mayr T., Mouazen A.M. 2014. Mapping polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and total toxicity equivalent soil concentrations by visible and near-infrared spectroscopy. Environmental Pollution. 192: 162-170.

Training and skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to CENTA research themes.

To complement CENTA training, the student will participate in the following development activities:

  • 3 month CASE partner internship with WSP and Groundsure: to gain real experience in communicating risk and using visualization tools; to provide a sound backing in general probabilistic methods for dealing with uncertainties within the natural environment;
  • Specialised training in spatial data analysis, data management, processing and modelling at BGS and Cranfield; and
  • BGS and Cranfield training programmes focused on technical knowledge through access to specialist modules (e.g. multimedia modelling) and research methods (e.g. critical literature reviews); and personal effectiveness through the transferable skills training sessions.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The team is uniquely placed to manage a highly impactful CASE PhD. Dr. Beriro, is a senior geoscientist at BGS, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow and has a strong pre-academic background in applied geoscience. Prof. Coulon is an internationally recognised environmental chemist. Prof. Thomas is an internationally recognised ground contamination specialist and Technical Director at WSP. Mr. Hardy is the research manager for Groundsure, a market leading data provider for the environmental markets. WSP and Groundsure are CASE partners and private sector end-users. Homes England will provide technical input and access to real-world data for its national portfolio of brownfield sites.


The candidate must have a first degree in environment science, physical geography, computer science, maths, engineering or related discipline. A Masters level degree is desirable in a related field. Experience working with spatial data, programming languages and any industry experience would be an advantage.

We welcome applications from UK and EU students, students from outside of the EU are not eligible. Full tuition fees and an annual stipend in line with UK Research Councils are available for UK and EU applicants who qualify for NERC awards.

Further guidance about eligibility is available at RCUK Terms & Conditions.

How to apply

This PhD will be hosted at the British Geological Survey (BGS). As the BGS cannot award degrees, applicants must in the first instance apply to Cranfield University where you will be registered.

In addition to this they should send by email to a current CV, names and addresses of two referees, personal statement written by the candidate, no longer than 1 page of A4, containing project title and detailing their reasons for applying to study a PhD and why they have selected their chosen doctoral research project.

Application deadline

12 noon 21 January 2019.

Where will you be based

You will be based at the British Geological Survey for a minimum of 50% of your time. You will spend 3 months with the CASE partners, WSP and Groundsure Ltd. The remainder of the time will be spend either at Cranfield University or BGS depending on how the research develops.

Stipend and research fund

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support.

  • Annual tax free NERC stipend, set at £14,777 for 2018/19 + £1,500 per year uplift from CASE funding
  • Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000 for expenses incurred during study e.g. conferences, travel, subsidence, training
  • CASE funding from WSP and Groundsure Ltd. to supplement the RTSG, including 3 month industry placement with the CASE partners

Further details

For further information on this project please contact either Dr Darren Beriro at the British Geological Survey or Prof Frederic Coulon at Cranfield University.

Facies expression of carboniferous source rocks: hydrocarbon generation, expulsion or retention

Science Area: Centre for Environmental Geochemistry

Title: Facies expression of carboniferous source rocks: hydrocarbon generation, expulsion or retention

BGS supervisor: Michael Stephenson

University supervisor: Sarah Davies

DTP: CENTA, University of Leicester

Project description

Project Highlights

  • Use state-of-the-art organic geochemistry analytical techniques in well-equipped laboratories
  • Design and run bespoke analytical experiments to provide insights into the dynamic nature of hydrocarbon generation, expulsion or retention in the subsurface
  • Develop an in-depth knowledge of mudstone sedimentology and stratigraphy and its potential to affect hydrocarbon generation.
  • Placements with Haliburton to gain industry experience and expertise, and place academic research in a petroleum systems context.


Specific technical challenges exist associated with the exploitation of hydrocarbons from the Carboniferous Bowland Shale unconventional target in northern England. This project will help address those challenges by providing an understanding of the formation’s capacity to: 1) generate hydrocarbons and 2) expel them from, or retain them within, organic-rich shales.

In recent years published research has increased our knowledge of the sedimentology and controls on organic matter of UK Corboniferous mudstones (e.g. Könitzer et al. 2014). Building on this work, the student will develop an understanding for the organisation of depositional systems in the Bowland shales and an appreciation for the expression of source rocks in mixed carbonate-clastic and clastic-dominated shale systems. Based on publically available data, an up-scaled subsurface model for the formation will be created to aid regional evaluation in the later stages of the project. The student will have access to specialist technical and scientific support through working with the British Geological Survey, Halliburton and University of Leicester.

To assess the retention or expulsion of hydrocarbons from these organic-rich mudstones, the student will develop a set of analytical experiments on selected shales samples that are intended to replicate the maturation of source rocks. The experimental design wil include consideration of how the results can be up-scaled to reflect stratigraphic heterogeneities observed in the subsurface. The student will undertake the analytical work at the British Geological Survey who will provide scientific and technical supervision on experimental analyses.

The overarching objective of the PhD will be to generate a more robust model for the generation, expulsion or retention of hydrocarbons from the Carboniferous shales of the UK which is grounded in the the results of regional research combined with detailed source rock experiments. These collated insights will provide an enhanced appreciation for the likely success, or otherwise, of a highly uncertain unconventional resource play.


A three stage project is proposed. (1) standard sedimentological techniques will be used to understand the range of facies represented in the likely source rock systems of the Bowland Shale. This can be characterised from subsurface core where available and will include compiling representative inventory of source rock samples, derived from outcrop and the subsurface. Regional subsurface models for the formation will be built in Halliburton’s Decision Space Geology software and ported into Permedia for modelling subsurface pressure, temperature and maturity conditions.

Organic geochemical analyses will be undertaken on the sampled shales to assess the quality, source and thermal maturity of these as source rocks (e.g. Rock-Eval, analytical pyrolysis GC-MS and molecular biomarkers) and the proportion of hydrocarbons within them prior to experimentation. Open and closed system pyrolysis methods will be utilised to better understand the retention and expulsion of hydrocarbons.

In the final stages of the project, the principals of play fairway analysis will be used to better assess the likely extent and resource within any likely shale play.

References/background reading

Könitzer, S F, Davies, S J & Stephenson, M H & Leng, M J. 2014. Depositional controls on mudstone lithofacies in a basinal setting: implications for the delivery of sedimentary organic matter. Journal of Sedimentary Research, 84, 198-214.

Andrew, I J. 2013. The Carboniferous Bowland Shale Gas Study: Geology and Resource Estimate NERC Report, 29 (5), pp. 1157‐1162.

Uguna, C N, Snape C E, Meredith, W, Carr A D, Scotchman, I C, Murray, A & Vane, C H. Impact of high (900 bar) water pressure on oil generation and maturation in Kimmeridge Clay and Monterey source rocks: Implications for hydrocarbon retention and gas generation in shale gas systems. Journal of Marine Petroleum Geology, 73, 72-85.

EIA (US) (2015) Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources: United Kingdom. Report.


It is anticipated that the student will accrue the bulk of their CENTA Training Credits (CTC's) through work placement at Halliburton. Two main work placements will be required in the first and final years of study, both of which are two weeks (10 working days) in duration. During the first, the student will learn to manipulate industry standard software. This will include Decision Space Geology, Permedia and ArcGIS. During the second, the student will use these skills to undertake play fairway evaluation.

How to apply

This PhD will be hosted at the British Geological Survey (BGS). As the BGS cannot award degrees, applicants must follow the guidelines on applying for a CENTA project at the University of Leicester where they will be registered.

In addition to this they should send, by email to, a current CV, names and addresses of two referees, personal statement written by the candidate, no longer than one page of A4, containing project title and detailing their reasons for applying to study a PhD and why they have selected their chosen doctoral research project.

Application deadline

21st January 2019, 12 noon.

Further details

For further details please contact Michael Stephenson

Micronutrient and pollution transfer in East African lake catchments: impacts on the food-water-energy security nexus

Science Area: Centre for Geochemistry

Title: Micronutrient and pollution transfer in East African lake catchments: impacts on the food-water-energy security nexus

BGS supervisor: Michael Watts

University supervisor: William Blake

DTP: ARIES, University of Plymouth

Project description

Subsistence farmers in Africa are often dependent on food grown within a limited area. Therefore, their health is often associated with geochemical factors that influence the soil-to-crop transfer of essential micronutrients (MN) for health (e.g. zinc). Food production and quality is compromised by soil erosion and downstream transport of sediments to waterbodies where sediment and associated nutrients/pollutants impact water security. Resources to manage soils sustainably can be limited, resulting in weathering and erosion of soil into waterways/catchments, such as Lake Victoria. Little is known about the loss of MN from weathering of soils and whether these are more prone to poor soil management (organic retention). Loss of fine soil particles may result in transfer of micronutrients or naturally occurring/anthropogenic potentially harmful elements (PHEs) into water courses/catchments with implications for ecological health. The Winam Gulf catchment of Lake Victoria is an exemplar of these processes as a regionally important source of food both from land and water.

Aims and objectives

  • Quantify the nutrient/micronutrient and erodibility status of soil across the Winam Gulf catchment under a range of land use histories and terrain.
  • Link sediment in transit within the system to specific spatial and land use defined source areas and processes (surface versus subsurface/gully erosion) using environmental forensic/tracer tools.
  • Integrate geospatial evidence with a GIS-based risk modelling framework permitting scenario testing of future changes in land use on MN and PHE flux.

To achieve these aims, the student will receive training in field, lab and data/statistical techniques in two phases:

  1. Using on-going data capture, evaluate the potential apportionment of sediment chemistry to sources and locations from baseline soil geochemistry and sediment data collected by UK-Kenyan partners, with additional analyses on archived samples for source apportionment.
  2. The student will undertake sampling in Kenya representative of differing land-use (varying timescales of land clearance) subject to different scales of soil erosion, accounting for soil geochemistry over two field seasons to better understand the chemistry and physical parameters influencing leaching of MNs/PHEs.

Candidate requirements

The candidate should have an earth/environmental science or chemistry degree and willing to travel for fieldwork in Kenya. Applicants from quantitative disciplines who may have limited environmental science experience may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take appropriate advanced-level courses.


This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP). Undertaking a PhD with ARIES will involve attendance at DTP training events.

The successful candidate will be based at BGS, Keyworth, within the Inorganic Geochemistry team, with secondments for work with supervisors at University of Plymouth and University of Eldoret, Kenya. There will be a fieldwork in Kenya, as well as laboratory development for source apportionment of soil-to-sediment transfer into Lake Victoria.

Training in experimental design/sampling strategy/collection, chemical analysis techniques and data interpretation tools (Bayesian models, GIS) will assist mapping of the spatial influence of geochemical/weather on soil erosion. The student will learn to interact with members of the public, address cultural concerns and dissemination of data at policy decision and farmer level.

The student will work between BGS and Plymouth University, utilising geochemistry lab facilities as appropriate (e.g. chemical analyses-BGS, gamma spectrometry-Plymouth), data management at BGS including planning of experimental sites through use of satellite imagery data and regional geochemical databases, interpretation of data at both institutes, with particular specialism in source apportionment for soil erosion at Plymouth. Whilst the student will produce new geochemical data at targeted locations, he/she will also work at a multidisciplinary level on statistical interpretation of a wider dataset for source apportionment data. This project benefits from a local supervisor at the University of Eldoret (Odipo Osano) via ongoing projects mentioned. Kenyan logistical and academic support exists to support student learning and activities in Kenya.

References/background reading

Joy, E J M, Broadley, M R, Young, S D, Black C R, Chilimba, A D C, Ander, E L, Barlow, T S and Watts, M J*. (2015). A spatially refined food composition table for Malawi, Science of the Total Environment, 505, 587-595, DOI:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.10.038.

Watts MJ*, Joy EJM, Broadley MR, Young SD, Ander EL, Chilimba ADC, Gibson RS, Siyame EWP, Kalimbira and Chilima B. (2015). Iodine source apportionment in the Malawian diet, Scientific Reports, 5 1521. DOI: 10.1038/srep15251

Middleton D R S, Watts M J*, Beriro D J, Hamilton E M, Leonardi G S, Fletcher T, Close R M, Polya D A. (2017). Arsenic in residential soil and household dust in Cornwall, south west England: potential human exposure and the influence of historical mining, Environmental Science: processes and impact, DOI:10.1039/c6em00690f.

E Oyoo-Okoth, W Admiraal, O Osano. (2013). Contribution of soil, water and food consumption to metal exposure of children from geological enriched environments in the coastal zone of Lake Victoria, Kenya, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 216, 8-16.

Blake, Boeckx et al. (2018). A deconvolutional Bayesian mixing model approach for river basin sediment source apportionment, Scientific Reports, 8: 13073


Aquaculture: Pathway to food security in Kenya

Geochemistry and health in the Kenyan Rift Valley

How to apply

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP). This PhD will be hosted at the British Geological Survey (BGS). As the BGS cannot award degrees, applicants must complete online application at the University of Plymouth where they will be registered. The successful candidate will be registered for a PhD in the University of Plymouth’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

In addition to this applicants should send, by email to, a current CV, names and addresses of two referees, personal statement written by the candidate, no longer than one page of A4, containing project title and detailing their reasons for applying to study a PhD and why they have selected their chosen doctoral research project.

Application deadline

The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 8th January 2019. Shortlisting of candidates will be undertaken by the supervisors before the end of January. The shortlisted applicant will then be interviewed by the ARIES DTP panel on 26th/27th February 2019. Usually, only UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for three years are eligible for a stipend.

Further details

For further details please contact Dr Michael Watts Inorganic Geochemistry

'Seeing inside flood embankments' – novel geophysical imaging approaches for assessing the health of safety-critical flood defence infrastructure

Science Area: Engineering Geology & Infrastructure

Title: 'Seeing inside flood embankments' – novel geophysical imaging approaches for assessing the health of safety–critical flood defence infrastructure

BGS supervisor: Prof Jonathan Chambers

University supervisor: Prof Mike Kendall

DTP: GW4+ DTP2, University of Bristol

Project description

There are many thousands of kilometres of earth embankments within the UK flood defence and canal networks, much of which is aging and displaying increasing levels of failure in response to extreme weather events. The failure of these embankments can have severe social and economic impacts in terms of disruption, damage to property, and even loss of life. Conventional approaches to managing these structures are heavily reliant on walkover inspections or remotely sensed information. However, they cannot provide subsurface information; instead they only detect failure once it has begun, by which time it is often too late to undertake remedial action.

This project seeks to develop emerging non–invasive geophysical imaging technologies as a means of rapidly assessing the internal condition of safety critical water retaining structures. The advantage of these techniques is that they have the potential to provide detailed volumetric subsurface information related to, for example, lithology, strength, cavitation and moisture content – thereby greatly assisting in the condition assessment of these structures and early warning of failure.

Aims & Objectives

The overarching objective of the project is to develop new integrated geophysical approaches for condition assessment of flood defence earthworks. Specific aims include:

  • Developing optimised survey design solutions for both rapid (2D) characterisation and detailed (3D) assessments.
  • Joint interpretation of geophysical and environmental data to develop robust ground models.
  • Assessment of the sensitivity of new geophysical approaches to a range of embankment internal erosion scenarios validated through synthetic modelling and field trials.
  • Knowledge exchange & dissemination activities to inform good–practice in geophysical characterisation amongst stakeholders in the end–user and academic communities.


Two strongly complementary classes of geophysical techniques will be investigated – geoelectrics and seismics. Geoelectrical measurements are sensitive to compositional variations (particularly clay content) and groundwater saturation/quality changes, whereas seismic measurements can provide information on geomechanical property variations (elastic stiffness and density) of the subsurface.

Survey design solutions, ground model development and sensitivity analyses will be undertaken using a combination of computer based simulations, small-scale laboratory testing (linking electrical, seismic and other physical properties) and field-scale trials. Trial sites will be provided by the EA. Detailed experimental design and field site selection will be a collaborative process involving the student, supervisors and CASE partners.

References/background reading:

Bergamo, P, Dashwood, B, Uhlemann, S, Swift, R, Chambers, J E, Gunn, D A, and Donohue, S. 2016. Time–lapse monitoring of climate effects on earthworks using surface waves, Geophysics, 81(2), EN1–EN1

Gunn, D A, Chambers, J C, Uhlemann, S, Wilkinson, P B, Meldrum, P I, Dijkstra, T A, Haslam, E, Kirkham, M, Wragg, J, Holyoake, S, Hughes, P N, Hen–Jones, R, and Glendinning, S. 2014. Moisture monitoring in clay embankments using electrical resistivity tomography. Construction and Building Materials, 92, 82–94.

Loke, M H, Chambers, J E, Rucker, D F, Kuras, O, and Wilkinson, P B. 2013. Recent developments in the direct–current geoelectrical imaging method. Journal of Applied Geophysics, 95, 135-156.

Tuckwell, G. A reference for geophysical techniques and applications, 3rd Edition. RSK

Candidate requirements

Applicants should hold a minimum of a UK Honours Degree at 2:1 level or equivalent in subjects such as Earth Science, Geophysics, Physics, Engineering, Physical Geography or Mathematics. The candidate must be an enthusiastic field scientist, who is willing to travel in the UK and internationally.


The student will benefit from a range of formal taught training courses by UoB and BGS, which will focus on developing research skills, software use, programming, scientific writing, and presentation skills. Supervisors and a CASE partners will provide specialist training in the flood embankment assessment and the use of the geophysical techniques and computational methods applicable to the project (i.e. seismic, electromagnetic and geoelectrical tomography, data processing, inversion and interpretation). The student will also have the opportunity to attend short courses and summer schools, and relevant conferences and workshops in the UK and internationally.

How to apply

This PhD will be hosted at the British Geological Survey (BGS). As the BGS cannot award degrees, applicants must complete online application form here: at the University of Bristol, where they will be registered.

In addition to this they should send by email to a current CV, names and addresses of two referees, personal statement written by the candidate, no longer than 1 page of A4, containing project title and detailing their reasons for applying to study a PhD and why they have selected their chosen doctoral research project.

Application deadline

The application deadline is 1600 hours GMT Monday 7 January 2019 and interviews will take place between 4 and 15 February 2019. For more information about the NERC GW4+ DTP, please visit

Further details

For further details please contact Prof Jonathan Chambers

Sustainable sourcing of platinum-group metal (PGM) from unconventional resources for supply to hydrogen production and fuel cell electric vehicle

Science Area: Minerals & Waste

Title: Sustainable sourcing of platinum-group metal (PGM) from unconventional resources for supply to hydrogen production and fuel cell electric vehicle

BGS supervisor: Dr Evi Petavratzi

University supervisor: Dr Hannah Hughes

DTP: GW4+ DTP2, University of Exeter, Camborne School of Mines

Project description

Advances in hydrogen production and fuel cells are vital for the decarbonisation of transport, infrastructure and industry [1], as highlighted by the UK Clean Growth Strategy [2] and in similar strategies worldwide [1,3,4]. Concerns about climate change, air pollution and energy security suggest future growth, but uncertainties over prevailing technologies, rate of market penetration and the balance between hydrogen and battery driven technologies make forecasting future raw materials demand difficult.

Platinum-group metals (PGM) are critical raw materials (due to their security of supply primarily from southern Africa and Russia [5]) with diverse applications ranging from autocatalysts to investment. PGM are essential in electrolysis for hydrogen production and in fuel cells for electric vehicles [1]. Both processes utilise electrolysers that contain PGM catalysts in higher concentrations than in the catalytic converters in conventional vehicles [6]. Thus these emerging technologies will require a significant increase in the production (primary or otherwise) of PGM [7], whilst also fulfilling sustainability principles to align with the clean growth challenge. This project will explore secondary PGM resources, assess the PGM supply chain and evaluate potential environmental gains associated with their use.

This project aims to:

  1. analyse the supply chain for PGM, to understand how the hydrogen and fuel cell transition will influence current and future global demand and supply patterns for PGM, and identify supply constraints and opportunities for intervention to mitigate against supply risk and improve sustainability;
  2. investigate the PGM potential of secondary resources by identifying and analysing appropriate sources (primarily mine waste) and;
  3. understand the environmental impacts of PGM mining and the opportunities and challenges associated with the utilisation of secondary resources, especially with regards to waste, energy, water, land use and others.

A material flow analysis (MFA) model describing PGM use in fuel cells and hydrogen production will be developed with the aim of calculating demand for PGM across a range of future consumption scenarios. The analysis will serve to assess the need for additional sources of supply from primary and secondary raw materials. Secondary resource identification and characterisation will focus on tailings from existing PGM and chromite mines. These insights will be used to inform the scenarios of the MFA model. Field studies on known PGM-rich tailings will involve the collection of ‘waste’ samples in order to determine the geochemical and mineralogical characteristics and thus the concentration of PGM, processing favourability, economic viability and scalability of these alternative sources for the extraction of PGM.

References/background reading

Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (2017). Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Technology: Europe's Journey to a Greener World. 10th Stakeholder Forum. [online] Available at:

HM Government (2017). The Clean Growth Strategy. Leading the way to a low carbon future. [online] Available at:

Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (2016). Strategic Roadmap for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells. Japan. [online] Available at:

U.S. Department of Energy (2011). The Department of Energy Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program Plan. [online] Available at:

European Commission (2017). Study on the review of the list of Critical Raw Materials. Critical Raw Materials Factsheets. Platinum Group Metals. [online] Available at:

Marscheider–Weidemann, F, Langkau, S, Hummen, T, Erdmann, L, Tercero Espinoza, L, Angerer, G, Marwede, M, and Benecke, S. (2016). Rohstoffe fur Zukunftstechnologien 2016. – DERA Rohstoffinformationen 28: 353 S., Berlin.

Candidate requirements

First class Honours degree and/or Masters in Geology/Earth Sciences (or equivalent), with demonstrable interest in mineral resources, commodity markets, critical metals, security of supply, industrial ecology and sustainability. The candidate should have excellent communication skills to allow effective interaction with relevant stakeholders from government, industry and academia.


The student will be supported and trained by staff with relevant expertise in:

  • Modelling and economic analysis: material flow analysis, commodity market studies, foresight analysis (scenario building),
  • Geological, mineralogical and geochemical analysis: core logging, ore sampling, bulk geochemical analysis (including NiS fire assay), mineralogical methods including petrography, ore microscopy, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), electron microprobe analysis (EMPA) and automated mineralogical techniques including QEMSCAN.

BGS and CSM offer a range of training courses throughout the year that will become available to the student during the course of this studentship. Examples of courses include:

  • IT related: ArcGIS10, CorelDraw, programming
  • Project management
  • Geology, geostatistics, mapping, sampling, time series analysis
  • Writing skills, publication workshop, presentation skills, working with the media

How to apply

This PhD will be hosted at the British Geological Survey (BGS). As the BGS cannot award degrees, applicants must complete online application form here: at the University of Exeter, where they will be registered.

In addition to this they should send by email to a current CV, names and addresses of two referees, personal statement written by the candidate, no longer than 1 page of A4, containing project title and detailing their reasons for applying to study a PhD and why they have selected their chosen doctoral research project

Application deadline

The application deadline is 1600 hours GMT Monday 7 January 2019 and interviews will take place between 4 and 15 February 2019. For more information about the NERC GW4+ DTP, please visit

Further details

For further details please contact Dr Evi Petavratzi

Assessing the vulnerability of roof collapse in response to loading from volcanic ash with relevance to Ascension Island

Science Area: Earth Hazards & Observatories

Title: Assessing the vulnerability of roof collapse in response to loading from volcanic ash with relevance to Ascension Island

BGS supervisor: Julia Crummy

University supervisor: Mark Thomas

DTP: PANORAMA, University of Leeds

Project description

The loading that results from ash fall following volcanic eruptions can pose a significant problem to the structural integrity of buildings. Damage to buildings due to volcanic ash fall is frequently reported yet poorly studied. This is largely because damage data needs to be collected as soon after an eruption as possible before clean-up and repair, or erosion by wind and rain. This involves entering areas where there is a danger of further eruptions, and there are often sensitivities with local communities, science agencies and disaster emergency managers. As a result, there is a need for focused experimental studies on the impacts of ash loading on buildings and given that over 800 million people are now estimated to live near active volcanoes, the evaluation of the vulnerability of buildings to ash loading is also essential for disaster risk reduction.

Roof collapse is the result of a complex interaction involving the loading caused by the ash, the design and condition of the structure and the weather. As such there are three main objectives in this project.

  1. Defining a "characteristic" amount of ash
  2. Defining the relevant seasonal properties of the ash
  3. Evaluating the vulnerability of buildings and the hazard posed

The project objectives will be achieved through a combination of desk-, laboratory- and field-work. Attempting to undertake these objectives on a global scale is not possible, so this project will be using Ascension Island as a case study. Ascension Island is a remote volcanic island that lies ca. 90 km east of the Mid Atlantic Ridge in the South Atlantic. It rises 4 km from the seafloor to a height of 859 m above sea level (a.s.l.), and has an area of approximately 91 km2. It forms part of the UK Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, and has a population of approximately 800 including the UK Royal Air Force and US Air Force. The island is volcanically active, with recent research revealing that the youngest lava flows are just a few hundred years old. Past volcanic activity on Ascension Island was dominated by mafic lava flows with felsic pyroclastic deposits and scoria. The explosive eruptive history is confined to vents on the central mountainous region of the island and recent research has revealed at least 74 pumice-producing eruptions were identified within the last 1 Myr.

This first stage of the project will be defining a "characteristic" value for the amount of ash. For ash fall, where eruptions can be separated by centuries, often with no written record, determining such a value is extremely challenging. In such situations, a scenario-based approach will be used, developed based on the geological record. Multiple simulations are run for each scenario using a tephra dispersion model. For Ascension Island, explosive eruption scenarios have been developed and simulated based on two months of wind data. The resultant ash thickness maps have been used as a basis for an initial ash fall hazard assessment on Ascension Island at the BGS. This project will expand on this work through tephra dispersion modelling of a ten-year Reanalysis wind database to develop an ash loading characteristic value.

The second stage will involve characterising the ash and its interaction with the structures. To calculate the true load imposed on a roof there are many aspects that need to be considered. These include properties of the ash such as composition (density) and shape (related to the eruption style), whether the ash is dry or wet (which changes the density), or how the ash will have accumulated on the roof (e.g. drifting), which is determined by the shape of the roof and the material the roof is made from. Through laboratory work at the University of Leeds conducted on real and synthetic ash, this project will define the required properties and parameters.

Following the full probabilistic characterisation of the ash load, the third stage will involve incorporating these data into a vulnerability/hazard assessment for Ascension Island.

References/background reading

Blong, R J, Grasso, P, Jenkins, S F, Magill, C R, Wilson, T M, McMullan, K and Kandlbauer, J. 2017. Estimating building vulnerability to volcanic ash fall for insurance and other purposes. Journal of Applied Volcanology, 6(1), p.2.

Bonadonna, C, Connor, C B, Houghton, B F, Connor, L, Byrne, M, Laing, A and Hincks, T K. 2005. Probabilistic modeling of tephra dispersal: Hazard assessment of a multiphase rhyolitic eruption at Tarawera, New Zealand. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 110(B3).

Nielson, D L and Sibbett, B S. 1996. Geology of Ascension Island, South Atlantic Ocean. Geothermics, 25(4-5), pp.427-448.

Tadic, M P, Zaninovic, K and Jurkovic, R S. 2015. Mapping of maximum snow load values for a 50-year return period for Croatia. Spatial Statistics, 14(A), pp. 53-69.


The student will be a member of an active and enthusiastic cohort of PhD researchers at the University of Leeds and will become part of both the Volcanology and Rock Mechanics, Engineering Geology and Hydrology research groups. The successful candidate will receive training in research methodology, scientific writing, tephra dispersion modelling, geotechnical characterisation of materials and conduction of vulnerability/hazard assessments. There will be significant time spent working closely with the BGS in Edinburgh and the potential for field campaigns on Ascension Island, which will be extremely beneficial in gathering gather data on the buildings on Ascension; information to be used in both the characterisation of the ash load and the vulnerability assessment.

There will be the opportunity to present research findings at national and international conferences and workshops as well as internal seminars. This project will also benefit from close working relationships between BGS and New Zealand and Earth Observatory Singapore researchers who are leaders in the field of vulnerability and impacts of ash fall on critical infrastructure.

How to apply

Application deadline

Monday 7th January 2019.

Further details

For further details please contact Dr Mark Thomas

A better understanding of environmental impact through ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry and organic geochemistry

Science Area: Minerals and Waste

Title: A better understanding of environmental impact through ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry and organic geochemistry

BGS supervisor: Chris Vane

University supervisor: Mark Barrow

DTP: CENTA, University of Warwick

Project description

Anthropogenic impact upon the environment is of increasing concern. There is a strong need for improved methodologies for environmental monitoring, particularly with respect to understanding the chemistry of highly complex samples. Ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry, such as Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance (FTICR) mass spectrometry (MS), is a state-of-the-art analytical method which has been playing a leading role in the modern characterization of complex mixtures. Two examples include the analysis of petroleum and environmental samples, leading to complex data sets which subsequently serve as molecular "profiles" or "fingerprints" of the organic components. The detailed molecular characterization of such samples, typically including tens of thousands of organic compositions, can be processed and visualized using a variety of methods. Comparisons of the resulting sample profiles can provide insight into sample origins and the effects of anthropogenic or environmental processes. Collaboration with the Department of Statistics has also resulted in significantly improved processing of complex data sets and the production of in-house software, used in conjunction with commercial data analysis software. Examples of real-world applications include characterization of water associated with the environment and the oil sands industry in Alberta (Canada) and, in collaboration with the British Geological Survey, the recent study of soil cores from Staten Island (New York, USA), where analysis of soil from varying depths provides a chemical history of oil contamination in the region. This Collaborative Studentship (PhD) is based on a co-developed project with the British Geological Survey and will explore for the first time the utility of FTICR-MS to enhance our understanding of: 1) Unconventional hydrocarbon resources in Carboniferous mudstones of the UK; 2) Organic Pollution in soils from the UKGEOS Clyde and Thornton sites and; 3) Estuarine and river sediment samples from the Tidal reaches of the Thames (London) and the Red River (Hanoi) Vietnam.


Dr Vane and his team at the British Geological Survey (BGS) will provide samples from international sites of interest, while Dr Barrow and his research group will provide expertise for the 12 T FTICR mass spectrometer. Ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry will offer new information for a range of environmental samples, where lower resolution techniques provide less detailed profiles and key details can be lost. Sample collection in the environment, sample extraction/preparation methods in the laboratory, ionization methods, and fragmentation methods will be explored to develop a fuller picture of the composition of complex samples. State-of-the-art data analysis methods, originally arising from research into petroleum analysis, will be used to analyse and visualise the data, where samples can then be compared. Data processing methods will also be explored to optimize the sample comparisons.

References/background reading

Barrow, M P. 2010. "Petroleomics: study of the old and the new" Biofuels, 1(5), pp. 651-655.

Barrow, M P, Peru, K M & Headley, J V. 2014. "An Added Dimension: GC Atmospheric Pressure Chemical Ionization FTICR MS and the Athabasca Oil Sands" Anal. Chem., 86(16), pp. 8281-8288.

Barrow, M P, Witt, M, Headley, J V & Peru, K M. 2010. "Athabasca Oil Sands Process Water: Characterization by Atmospheric Pressure Photoionization and Electrospray Ionization Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry" Anal. Chem., 82(9), pp. 3727-3735.

Griffiths, M T, Da Campo, R, O'Connor, P B & Barrow, M P. 2014. "Throwing Light on Petroleum: Simulated Exposure of Crude Oil to Sunlight and Characterization Using Atmospheric Pressure Photoionization Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry" Anal. Chem., 86(1), pp. 527-534.

Headley, J V, Barrow, M P, Peru, K M, Fahlman, B, Frank, R A, Bickerton, G, McMaster, M E, Parrott, J & Hewitt, L M. 2011. "Preliminary fingerprinting of Athabasca oil sands polar organics in environmental samples using electrospray ionization Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry" Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom., 25(13), pp. 1899-1909.


Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and 'free choice' external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.

The student will gain training and expertise in the field of organic geochemistry, including sample collection and preparation, and complementary analytical methods. The student will spend at least three months working in-house at the BGS. At the University of Warwick, the student will gain expertise from one of the world’s leading FTICR laboratories, learning FTICR mass spectrometry and including use of different ionization, fragmentation, and data analysis techniques.

How to apply

How to apply is detailed on the CENTA website.

Application deadline

The CENTA deadline is 12pm (noon) on 21st January 2019 please check with Loughborough University for their deadline.

Further details

For further details please contact Dr Vane or Dr Barrow directly, and see the research group web sites:

Dr Mark P Barrow,, email, Department of Chemistry, University of Warwick

Dr Christopher H Vane, email, British Geological Survey, Keyworth

Earthquakes and fault interaction in western Turkey

Science Area: Earth Hazards & Observatories

Title: Earthquakes and fault interaction in western Turkey

BGS supervisor: Ekbal Hussain

University supervisor: Zoë Mildon

DTP: ARIES, University of Plymouth

Project description

Western Turkey and the eastern Aegean Sea is a tectonically active region of north-south orientated extension that forms a series of east-west trending graben structures, with a historical record of large and damaging earthquakes. Seismogenic normal faults are exposed at the surface as post-glacial faults scarps, thus the fault geometry and slip rates can be deduced from field measurements. Although active faults are well-constrained, potential fault interactions and the strain accumulation of the region is poorly quantified at present leading to potential errors in the understanding of the earthquake hazard. This project will address this knowledge gap and provide insights into the earthquake cycle that can be applied to other regions.

Research methodology

The student will use a combination of field mapping and computer-based modelling to understand earthquake interaction and strain accumulation in the region. Fieldwork will be conducted in western Turkey to map the geometry and slip rates of under-studied faults, to complement existing literature. Historical data of shaking and damage will be analysed to determine the location and magnitude of historical earthquakes. Using the field data and historical earthquake data, fault models with representative variable fault geometry will be built. These will be used to calculate static (Coulomb) stress transfer which is used to analyse whether the triggering of earthquakes and fault interaction. This approach will be used to model stress changes associated with historical earthquakes over time to analyse the interaction between faults and the seismic hazard in the region. Strain and therefore stress will accumulate on the faults due to tectonic loading in the time between earthquakes. This will be studied using Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) and GPS analysis.

References/background reading

Mildon, Z K, Roberts, G P, Faure Walker, J P and Iezzi, F. 2017. Coulomb stress transfer and fault interaction over millennia on non-planar active normal faults: the Mw 6.5–5.0 seismic sequence of 2016–2017, central Italy. Geophysical Journal International, 210(2), pp.1206-1218.

Boulton, S J and Whittaker, A C. 2009. Quantifying the slip rates, spatial distribution and evolution of active normal faults from geomorphic analysis: Field examples from an obliqueextensional graben, southern Turkey. Geomorphology, 104(3-4), pp.299-316

Hussain, E, Wright, T J, Walters, R J, Bekaert, D P, Lloyd, R and Hooper, A. 2018. Constant strain accumulation rate between major earthquakes on the North Anatolian Fault. Nature communications, 9(1), p.1392.

Stein, R S. 1999. The role of stress transfer in earthquake occurrence. Nature, 402(6762), p.605. ALTUNEL, E. 1998. Evidence for damaging historical earthquakes at Priene, Western Turkey. Turkish Journal of Earth Sciences, 7(1), pp.25-36

Candidate requirements

We are looking for applicants with an undergraduate degree in Geology, Geophysics or Physics and an interest in earthquake hazard and neotectonics, who is willing to undertake fieldwork in Turkey. The student should be numerically literate; experience of using Matlab and familiarity with Linux is desirable but not essential.

Applicants from quantitative disciplines who may have limited environmental science experience may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take appropriate advanced-level courses.


The student will gain practical fieldwork skills in an area of active tectonics. Training to use modelling software and in InSAR analysis will be provided by the supervisory team.

How to apply

Application deadline

23:59 on 8th January 2019. Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 26th/27th February 2019.

Further details

For further details please contact Dr Zoë Mildon

Enrichment of critical elements in granites: melting process or protolith?

Science Area: Minerals and Waste

Title: Enrichment of critical elements in granites: melting process or protolith?

BGS supervisor: Kathryn Goodenough

University supervisor: Tom Argles

DTP: CENTA, Open University

Project description

The rise of electric vehicles is driving demand for critical elements ( such as Li, Nb, Ta, and Be. These elements are currently produced in relatively few countries, raising the spectre of disruption to their supply. They are commonly hosted in Sn-W bearing granites and pegmatites, but little is known about which minerals carry and concentrate these elements from the crustal protolith, via metamorphism and partial melting (anatexis), to the granitic magma. This project will track these trace elements from their original source to the host granite.

A recent study1 proposes a critical role for both the composition of the starting materials and the melting conditions in determining whether granites are enriched in critical elements or not. Unmineralised Himalayan leucogranites represent a rare example of granites formed from a known, accessible single source: pelitic metasediments2. This situation offers an opportunity to investigate the partitioning of critical elements by key mineral phases (e.g. feldspar, micas, tourmaline, titanite, magnetite, rutile) through metamorphism and low temperature (<750°C) anatexis by muscovite breakdown. By contrast, studies of mineralised granites suggest that critical elements may only be released into the melt as their host minerals break down at the higher temperatures of biotite dehydration melting (>750°C)1,3.

This project will exploit advances in laser ablation in situ analysis4 to determine element concentrations in minerals from mineralised and unmineralised granites and their corresponding source rocks. Existing samples will be supplemented by field sampling in Europe or Africa. The elemental data will constrain the budgets of critical elements at the mineral species level and investigate potential enrichment processes from protolith to melt formation. The results will test a recent model1 that links Sn-W granite mineralisation to high-temperature anatexis of an intensely weathered protolith.

We can test the hypothesis by

  1. modelling element concentrations in high-T (>750°C) melts that would theoretically be formed by biotite breakdown in Himalayan samples;
  2. comparing these model results with other metalliferous high-T melts to assess the role of temperature in causing mineralisation of economic proportions during granite formation.


The Open University holds samples of Himalayan crustal melts (granites), sub-solidus protoliths (mica schists) and in situ anatectic migmatites that are ideal for this study. Initial analysis of these curated samples will focus field sampling of contrasting, high-temperature granites and their source rocks (e.g. from NW Iberia or various African localities) for comparison studies. Recently-developed laser ablation (LA) ICP-MS protocols will be employed for in situ analysis of critical element concentrations in key minerals, alongside bulk rock analysis by solution ICP-MS. These results will evaluate element partitioning at different peak metamorphic temperatures and during incongruent melting by muscovite breakdown2. Modelling elemental concentrations in these samples during biotite breakdown (>h;750°C) will test the hypothesis that higher melt reaction temperatures are essential for Sn and W (and potentially other critical element) mineralisation in granitic crustal melts.

References/background reading

1 Romer, R L and Kroner, U. 2016. 'Phanerozoic tin and tungsten mineralization — Tectonic controls on the distribution of enriched protoliths and heat sources for crustal melting', Gondwana Research, 31, pp. 60–95. doi: 10.1016/

2 Patiño-Douce, A E and Harris, N. 1998. 'Experimental constraints on Himalayan anatexis', Journal of Petrology, 39 (4), pp. 689–710. doi: 10.1093/petroj/39.4.689

3 Ĉerný, P. 1990. 'Distribution, Affiliation and Derivation of Rare-Element Granitic Pegmatites in the Canadian Shield', Geologische Rundschau, 79, 183–226. doi: 10.1007/BF01830621

4 Jenner, F E and Arevalo, R D. 2016. 'Major and Trace Element Analysis of Natural and Experimental Igneous Systems using LA–ICP–MS', Elements, 12(5) pp. 311–316. doi: 10.2113/gselements.12.5.311

Candidate requirements

You should have a strong background in, and enthusiasm for, at least two of the fields of magmatic systems, geochemistry, and metamorphic petrology. Fieldwork experience is desirable. You will join a well‐established team of Earth scientists studying all aspects of geochemistry, magmatism and orogeny at the Open University; including The Himalaya -Tibet Research Group.


The successful student will be trained in fieldwork techniques as well as petrological and geochemical analysis of igneous and metamorphic samples. In situ LA‐ICP-MS analysis is central to the project. Training in modelling behaviour of trace elements during melting and metamorphic phase relationships will also be provided.

The School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences has a thriving postgraduate community. Online teaching opportunities via the Open University Virtual Learning Environment are available, including on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Our current graduate students are very active in science outreach at local schools as well as on digital platforms (e.g.

How to apply

Details of how to apply are on the CENTA project page.

Application deadline

12pm (noon) on 21st January 2019

Further details

For further details please contact Tom Argles

Integration of Geodiversity into Ecosystem Services Frameworks

Science Area: Regional Geology

Title: Integration of Geodiversity into Ecosystem Services Frameworks

BGS supervisor: Katie Whitbread

University supervisor: Heidi Burdett

DTP: IAPETUS, Heriot-Watt University

Project Description


Geodiversity is defined as the assemblages of, and processes within, the geological, geomorphological and soil / sediment features of a landscape – factors which fundamentally underpin biologically-based ecosystem services such as biodiversity. However, geodiversity is often ignored within the ecosystem approach (which, by definition, should be all-encompassing), and when assessing ecosystem services provided by a given habitat.

Each geological feature within a landscape provides a different environmental condition than the surrounding landscape. Distinct geological surfaces will be able to support different ecosystems, creating a 3- dimensional mosaic of habitats. The interrelationships, dynamic processes and complex feedback mechanisms between the physical, geological and biotic systems is well reported, but quantifying the complexity of relationships in the context of ecosystem services has yet to be adequately achieved. Geodiversity is now recognised as an important factor underpinning wider environmental policy issues, with substantial economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits for society. For example, geodiversity provides essential goods and services, e.g. non-renewable minerals, aggregates and fossil fuels, as well as additional ‘knowledge’ benefits, e.g. records of past climate changes and understanding of how Earth systems operate (see Gordon et al 2012 and Gordon & Barron 2011). The direct links between biology and geodiversity and their role in supporting ecosystems is a key area of active research.

Current state of the art

Interest in geodiversity has recently begun to increase due to the realisation that it may be critical in understanding the monetary and cultural value of a given ecosystem. Indeed, geodiversity itself may considered a supporting ecosystem service in a similar manner to nutrient cycling and primary production, but its quantification is challenging.

The British Geological Survey (BGS), who are co-supervising this studentship, is the UK geoscience research institute responsible for geological mapping, both onshore and offshore. BGS worked in close partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) on the newly formed Geodiversity Charter of Scotland, which recognises the importance of geodiversity, the need to promote its awareness and the requirement for a fully-integrated management scheme within the ecosystem approach. This charter highlighted the uniqueness of Scotland’s geodiversity across a relatively small geographical area, making Scotland an ideal location to investigate geodiversity.

However, incorporation of geodiversity into landscape management remains difficult because of a lack of quantitative metrics to describe geodiversity. If geodiversity is to be taken into account – for example when valuing natural capital – these metrics need to be developed and applied. This information is particularly important in areas of proposed land-use change and / or development.


This project will develop geodiversity indicator metric(s) for application across a suite of environments. This is important for integrating geodiversity into the future management of landscapes.


Given Scotland's unique range in geodiversity, the student will initially focus on Scotland-based resources and material. The scholar will have the opportunity to conduct fieldwork during the design and validation phases of the project. Possible field sites include: (1) UK 'geo-sites', as designated by the Geological Society of London, (2) current field sites of the Lyell Centre and BGS (terrestrial and marine) at which extensive background information is available and (3) disused open cast mines in Lanarkshire, which are being developed for geo-tourism and geological research. Three major research objectives within the PhD will be to:

  1. Develop conceptual models for describing and quantifying geodiversity from terrestrial, aquatic and marine environments.
  2. Develop suitable indicators for describing and quantifying geodiversity.
  3. Test the indicator(s)’ robustness in terrestrial and marine environments in the context of existing geology.

References/background reading

Scottish Geodiversity Charter (2018)

51 Best Places to see Scotland's Geology (2018)

Gordon & Barron. 2011. Scotland's geodiversity: development of the basis for a national framework. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 417. Online:

Gray. 2011. Other nature: geodiversity and geosystem services. Environmental Conservation v38: 271–274

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington. Online: ument.356.aspx.pdf


The student will be actively engaged with BGS throughout the PhD, including a dedicated secondment to maximise access to BGS facilities. This research is also highly topical at the policy / governmental level, thus the student will complete their PhD highly equipped for a career in academia, industry or policy. This studentship will equip the student with a range of skills including numeracy, proficiency in the translation of science to policy, fieldwork and soil science. Specific research skills will include:

  • Terrestrial and marine survey and auditing skills
  • Interdisciplinary analysis; combining geology, marine biology and terrestrial ecology
  • Sediment analysis
  • Marine, coastal, terrestrial and freshwater fieldwork
  • Environmental statistics and calculations of uncertainty
  • Advanced techniques in GIS

The student will be encouraged to attend relevant NERC short courses (e.g. environmental statistics), and BGS short-courses (e.g. geoscience modelling) depending on need, and will attend appropriate national (e.g. MASTS Annual Science Meeting) and international (e.g. European Geophysical Union) conferences. The project supervisors will also support and encourage the scholar’s attendance on transferable skills training such as data management, scientific writing and science communication. These are provided for free by Heriot-Watt University. Project support: The facilities and instrumentation available within the supervisors' institutions provide a combination of leading laboratory, field and analytical capability and technical support that will be ideal for this proposed research, maximising PhD training and research advances.

How to apply

Application deadline

Friday 18th January 2019 at 4 pm.

Further details

For further details please contact Heidi Burdett +44(0)131 451 3912.

Landscape evolution modelling for enhanced geohazard risk management along the Bailong River Corridor, Gansu, China

Science Area: Earth Hazards & Observatories

Title: Landscape evolution modelling for enhanced geohazard risk management along the Bailong River Corridor, Gansu, China

BGS supervisor: Alessandro Novellino

University supervisor: Tom Dijkstra

DTP: CENTA, Loughborough University

Project highlights:

  • Assess the long-term landscape evolution of the Bailong River Basin near Zhouqu, China
  • Develop a physical process model of geohazards (landslides, debris flows, floods) and evaluate the influence of neotectonics, climate and human interventions in the landscape
  • Enhance opportunities for sustainable development and effective geohazard risk management.


This exciting PhD will develop physical process-based, present-day and future geohazard risk scenarios for the Zhouqu area of the Bailong River Basin (Z-BRB), Gansu Province, China. This area covers some 300 km2 and is characterised by a very dynamic natural environment where lives, livelihoods and critical infrastructures are at risk from flooding, debris flows and landslides. Recent examples include the 2010 Zhouqu debris flow disaster that killed more than 1700 people (Dijkstra et al., 2012) and the July 2018 Nanyu landslide that destroyed the major road transport link to Zhouqu, dammed the Bailong river and caused flood damage resulting from an 8m rise in water levels upstream from the landslide dam.

The Z-BRB area is characterized by a neo-tectonically active environment with high topographic relief and elevations ranging from 1200m to more than 4000m. Landslides include large earthflows (several are more than 3km in length), rock falls and debris flows, and these play a prominent role in shaping this landscape. More than 80 large mass movements have been identified with a combined footprint of >30 km2.

The area is developing rapidly, going through major expansions of urban communities and infrastructure networks. To achieve long-term sustainable development, it is urgently needed to identify the spatial and temporal patterns of multiple, and often interacting geohazards. This requires capturing landscape evolution processes and mapping of variations in mass balances of landslide, fluvial and erosion processes as these are influenced by tectonic activity and climate. In turn, this should enable assessment of how these processes interact with human interventions in this landscape.

The project aims to:

Disentangle the complex web of interactions between exogenic dynamic processes and local lithotype properties that shape landforms by developing a physically-based numerical geomorphological model considering landslide activity (i), fluvial dynamics (ii), soil erosion (iii), tectonic processes (iv), climate factors (v) and their spatio-temporal interactions. Assess the current and future multi-geohazard risk and possible interactions between landslides (rock falls, debris flows, slides) with fluvial processes (floods, incision/erosion) under a range of scenarios that reflect changes in climate and regional (societal) development.


The Z-BRB area represents a fascinating natural laboratory featuring different types of landslides with dimensions and rates of movement spanning many orders of magnitude. Through literature review and local fieldwork, the student will be able to gain impressions of the scale of the earth surface processes. Close collaboration with Lanzhou University and the Wudu Geohazards Emergency Response Centre will ensure relevance to regional geohazard risk management and sustainable development and end-user uptake of research findings. The assessment of geological-hydrological risk in the area requires expansion of a geomorphological transport model (cf. Xia and Liang, 2018) that will account for complex topography and factors such as heterogeneous lithological settings, landslide activity, fluvial dynamics, soil erosion and that can be used to run scenarios of changes in tectonic activity, climate and regional development.

References/background reading

Dijkstra, T A, Chandler, J, Wackrow, R, Meng, X M, et al. 2012. Geomorphic controls and debris flows—the 2010 Zhouqu disaster, China. Proceedings of the 11th International Symposium on Landslides (ISL) and the 2nd North American Symposium on Landslides.

Xia, X, & Liang, Q. 2018. 'A new depth-averaged model for flow-like landslides over complex terrains with curvatures and steep slopes', Engineering Geology, 234, pp. 174-191.

Zhang, Y, Meng, X, Jordan, C, Novellino, A, Dijkstra, T and Chen, G. 2018. 'Investigating slow-moving landslides in the Zhouqu region of China using InSAR time series', Landslides, pp.1-17.

Candidate requirements

This research will involve close collaboration of Loughborough University/British Geological Survey (BGS) with Lanzhou University and the Geohazards Emergency Response Centre in Wudu (Gansu, China) who form the likely end-users of the research. This project requires a student with an aptitude for computer-based process modelling and a good understanding of earth surface processes. The external supervisor Prof Meng Xingmin has guaranteed support for local fieldwork and research activities. The student is expected to spend substantial time in the field study region (Bailong Corridor centred around Zhouqu), at Lanzhou University and at the BGS. Fieldwork scheduling for this project is flexible and will be arranged to fit around the CENTA2 training requirements.


For further development of key skills, the student will be able to benefit from courses at the British Geological Survey (e.g. analysis, processing and interpretation of satellite imagery through GIS software; developing programming skills for process modelling), NERC Advanced Training Short Courses in topics such as numerical modelling in Earth Sciences and understanding uncertainty in environmental modelling, and courses/fieldwork training through Lanzhou University.

How to apply

Please contact Berkeley Young, School of Civil and Building Engineering, Loughborough University. Please quote CENTA18-LU11 when completing the application form:

Application deadline

The CENTA deadline is 12pm (noon) on 21st January 2019 please check with Loughborough University for their deadline.

Further details

For further details please contact Dr Tom Dijkstra, Prof Qiuhua Liang or Dr Alessandro Novellino.

Methane source identification and characterisation of D/H isotopic ratios

Science Area: Minerals and Waste

Title: Methane source identification and characterisation of D/H isotopic ratios

BGS supervisor: Andi Smith

University supervisor: Rebecca Fisher

DTP: ARIES, Royal Holloway University of London

Project Description

Methane in the atmosphere is rising, and the reasons for year to year variations are not well understood. Reductions in methane are vital for the Paris Agreement to succeed. The isotopic composition of methane identifies sources emitting methane to the atmosphere because of characteristic source-specific isotopic signatures. The ability to isotopically fingerprint a methane source from samples taken at some distance from emission location is an important tool for many local and global environmental issues.

RHUL has focussed on measurement of methane δ13C, but is now developing measurement of D/H in methane for which far fewer measurements are made globally. The database of D/H signatures for methane sources has many gaps that need to be filled.

Research Methodology

The PhD student will measure isotopic ratios of D/H in methane by isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) for improved source attribution. Mobile campaigns will be carried out to locate emissions and air samples collected for isotopic analysis from the major methane sources. Ambient air samples will be analysed to compare measured signatures with that expected from inventories.

Collaboration with the British Geological Survey (BGS) will be on the use of IRMS to measure isotopic compositions of methane close to source. Collaboration with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) will be on ambient measurements of methane δ13C and δD using laser spectroscopy, as well as on the development of traceability and calibration of isotopic measurements.

References/background reading

Nisbet, E, Dlugokencky, E J, Manning, M R, Lowry, D, Fisher, R, France, J, Michel, S E, Miller, J B, White, J W C, Vaughn, B, Bousquet, P, Pyle, J A, Warwick, N, Cain, M, Brownlow, R, Zazzeri, G, Lanoiselle, M, Manning, A C, Gloor, E, Worthy, D E J, Brunke, E G, Labuschagne, C, Wolff, E W & Ganesan, A L. 2016. 'Rising atmospheric methane: 2007-14 growth and isotopic shift' Global Biogeochemical Cycles, vol 30, pp. 1-15. DOI: 10.1002/2016GB005406

Zazzeri, G, Lowry, D, Fisher, R E, France, J L, Lanoisellé, M, Grimmond, C S B & Nisbet, E G. 2017. 'Evaluating methane inventories by isotopic analysis in the London region' Scientific reports, vol 7, no. 1, 4854, pp. 1-13. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-04802-6

Rockmann, T, Eyer, S, van der Veen, C, Popa, M E, Tuzson, B, Monteil, G, Houweling, S, Harris, E, Brunner, D, Fischer, H, Zazzeri, G, Lowry, D, Nisbet, E G, Brand, W A, Necki, J M, Emmenegger, L & Mohn, J. 2016. 'In situ observations of the isotopic composition of methane at the Cabauw tall tower site' Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol 16, no. 16, pp. 10469-10487. DOI: 10.5194/acp-16-10469-2016

Fisher, R, France, J, Lowry, D, Lanoiselle, M, Brownlow, R, Pyle, J, Cain, M, Warwick, N, Skiba, U, Drewer, J, Dinsmore, K, Leeson, S, Bauguitte, S, Wellpott, A, O'Shea, S, Allen, G, Gallagher, M, Pitt, J, Percival, C, Bower, K, George, C, Hayman, G, Aalto, T, Lohila, A, Aurela, M, Laurila, T, Crill, P, McCalley, C & Nisbet, E. 2017. 'Measurement of the 13C isotopic signature of methane emissions from northern European wetlands' Global Biogeochemical Cycles, vol 31, no. 3, 10.1002/2016GB005504, pp. 605–623. DOI: 10.1002/2016GB005504

Warwick, N J, Cain, M L, Fisher, R, France, J L, Lowry, D, Michel, S E, Nisbet, E, Vaughn, B H, White, J W C & Pyle, J A. 2016. 'Using δ13C-CH4 and δD-CH4 to constrain Arctic methane emissions' Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol 16, no. 23, pp. 14891-14908. DOI: 10.5194/acp-16-14891-2016

Candidate requirements

A good science or engineering degree, preferably with some knowledge of atmospheric science and laboratory experience.


Training in field sampling, greenhouse gas analysis, stable isotope analysis, GIS and data interpretation will be given at RHUL. The student will also gain experience in laboratories at NPL and the BGS. The student will be expected to participate in group meetings for ongoing synergistic projects of the GHG group and present findings at international conferences.

How to apply


Application deadline

23:59 on 8th January 2019. Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 26th/27th February 2019.

Further details

For further details please contact Dr Rebecca Fisher.

Microbial survival and activity in bentonite: relevance to the safety case for geological disposal of radioactive waste

Science Area: Minerals and Waste

Title: Microbial survival and activity in bentonite: relevance to the safety case for geological disposal of radioactive waste

BGS supervisor: Simon Gregory

University supervisor: Henrik Sass

DTP: GW4+, Cardiff University

Project Description

The disposal of radioactive waste in geological disposal facilities (GDF) deep underground is being planned by several countries including the UK. Considerable effort continues to be put into research to inform the safety case for this process. One ongoing area of research is into the potential for microbial activity to affect the GDF.

Microbial activity has been implicated in several processes in and around the GDF, including corrosion of metals, gas generation and the alteration of clay barriers. The presence of methanogens in a repository environment could have important implications for 14C transport, gas volume and metal corrosion.

The limits to methanogenesis (e.g. pH, temperature, compaction density) remain to be fully detailed and are important for understanding the potential for methanogenic activity to impact the GDF and the safety case. In addition to methanogens, the limits on growth of a number of other microbial groups are important to predict processes such as metal corrosion and degradation of bentonite.

Project aims and methods

To confirm the assumption that methanogens cannot be isolated from a range of commercially available bentonites and then to investigate the conditions under which methanogens transported in groundwater can establish and become active in bentonites.

To establish the extent to which commercial bentonites contain other key microbial groups of interest (e.g. sulphate reducers, acetogens and metal reducers) To understand how environmental variables (e.g. pH, temperature, compaction and groundwater composition) affect microbial survival and activity. The primary focus will be on methanogens, but other anaerobic microbial groups will also be investigated in this project.

Laboratory experiments will be set up to establish the limits of microbial processes in bentonite under a range of conditions. Facilities for this include a thermal gradient and pressure incubation systems (Cardiff University) and facilities for the preparation of compacted bentonite samples (BGS).

Epifluorescence microscopy and culture-based assays (e.g. MPN) will be combined with chemical analysis (e.g. ion chromatography and gas chromatography) to assess microbial survival and activity. Molecular methods (PCR and sequencing) will be used where appropriate to further characterise the microbial community.

The focus of the PhD will be on methanogens but other microbiological characterisation will be carried out to give an insight into other linked microbial processes such as fermentation of organic carbon compounds, acetogenesis and sulphate reduction.

You will have access to samples from long term experiments running for several years that were set up at BGS looking at clay-microbe-steel interactions in compacted bentonite. You ill also benefit from the mineralogical, petrological and physical properties and fluid processes expertise of the BGS team involved in those long term experiments.

References/background reading

Humphreys, P N, West, J M and Metcalfe, R. 2010. Microbial Effects on Repository Performance. Quintessa Report QRS-1378Q-1 for the NDA-RWMD.

Candidate requirements

2:1 or better undergraduate degree in a science subject, such as biology, environmental or Earth Sciences. A relevant MSc would also be desirable.

Evidence of an interest in environmental microbiology e.g. in the form of a relevant dissertation project and any experience of working in a laboratory outside of formal education would be very welcome.

How to apply

See and go to the How to apply tab.

Application deadline

7 January 2019.

Further details

For further details please contact Dr Henrik Sass, +44 (0)29 2087 6001.

Nutrient release from coniferous woodland stimulated by changes in forest management: A new nitrate time bomb?

Science Area: Groundwater

Title: Nutrient release from coniferous woodland stimulated by changes in forest management: A new nitrate time bomb?

BGS supervisor: Matthew Ascott

University supervisor: Martin Lukac

DTP: SCENARIO, University of Reading

Project Description

Nitrogen (N) pollution of rivers and groundwater costs billions of pounds per year globally in water treatment and environmental damage from eutrophication. Deep water tables and slow transport of nitrate through unsaturated rocks has resulted in large quantities of nitrate stored in rocks above the water table. Release of this store – "the nitrate timebomb" – to groundwater represents a highly significant risk to water quality. In some areas, due to release of nitrate stored in unsaturated zone, groundwater nitrate concentrations have increased, despite reductions in N leaching. In addition to N stored in the unsaturated zone, there is now extensive evidence for N accumulation in forest soils. Nitrogen stored in forest soils presents a risk to water quality if N stores are mineralized and released, for example as a result of changes in forest management. Despite this risk, the potential impact of changes in forest management on N leaching from forests to groundwater and surface water is poorly understood. Current UK government policy proposes changes to forest management associated with afforestation and conversion of conifer to broadleaf systems. Consequently, we are expecting significant change of forest cover which is likely to alter established N leaching regimes which we know little about, thus creating a major research need.

Will changes in forest management practices result in a new nitrate timebomb?

This project will unravel the missing link between N accumulation in forests and its potential for release and to quantify the risks to water quality. A range of monitoring and modelling approaches will be used to quantify N fluxes to groundwater and surface water systems. The project will benefit from a vast array of datasets, from point to national scale covering a range of disciplines including soil science, biogeochemistry and hydrogeology. Long term (>15 years) soil monitoring data at 10 Forest Research monitoring sites across the UK will be analysed in conjunction with novel field measurements to develop conceptual and process-based models of N leaching. The results of this research will be upscaled to the national scale and future scenarios of forest management will be explored.

This research addresses a real-world problem for environmental managers. Results of the PhD will support measures to meet the Water Framework Directive and the Kyoto Protocol. The outcomes will also benefit practitioners and industry (e.g. forest managers, consultants, timber processors) who will receive improved guidance, evidence and tools to support sustainable forest management.

This research is multi-disciplinary, covering soil biogeochemistry, forest management and hydrogeology. The project is a unique integration of world class monitoring platforms, data sets, instrumentation, modelling within a supportive, dynamic research environment. The student will benefit from training to develop a wide range of technical (modelling, data driven and mathematical approaches, multi-disciplinarity, fieldwork and lab skills), applied, transferable and communication skills, all of which are highly valued by employers. The student will also gain a strong network of both researchers and practitioners working in forestry, soil science and hydrogeology.

Candidate requirements

This project would suit a student with a degree in quantitative environmental sciences. Students with knowledge of N biogeochemistry, soil science and hydrogeology would be particularly well placed.


The student will benefit from interdisciplinary training programmes at Forest Research, the University of Reading Graduate School, the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development and SCENARIO DTP. Programmes include formal courses covering a wide range of transferable skills including science, writing, communication or personal development skills. There will also be significant "on the job training" through presentations at annual research conferences and workshops, and collaboration with scientists with expertise in soil science, biogeochemistry, hydrology, modelling, fieldwork, data management and research translation. The student will benefit from working at BGS offices for 3 months, where they will gain hands-on training in the development and application of groundwater models. They will also have access to BGS High Performance Computing cluster and training in Linux. As needed they will also benefit from training in advanced lab methods to understand N process dynamics.

How to apply

Application deadline

25th January 2019

Further details

For further details please contact Martin Lukac, University of Reading, Department of Agriculture.

Predicting the next global geomagnetic reversal using machine learning

Science Area: Earth Hazards & Observatories

Title: Predicting the next global geomagnetic reversal using machine learning

BGS supervisor: Ciaran Beggan

University supervisor: Phil Livermore

DTP: PANORAMA, University of Leeds

Project Description

The Earth’s magnetic field, generated by turbulent convection in the liquid outer core, has reversed many times over its 3.5 billion-year history, at a present rate of about 2-3 times per million years. The last global reversal took place 780,000 years ago, leading to speculation that we are "overdue". This fact, coupled with the observations that the field is weakening in the south Atlantic (the so-called south Atlantic anomaly) and the dipole is presently decaying at a rate of 5% per century, suggests that the magnetic field may be headed for a reversal. However, predicting future magnetic field variations is challenging, in part because we don't yet have a complete physical description of the geodynamo within the core.

Despite these challenges, at our disposal is a large set of observations of the Earth’s magnetic field, describing its polarity state over millions of years, and more recently, several decades of very high quality satellite data now show the evolution of the geomagnetic field in unprecedented detail. To date, studies using data to constrain the geodynamo process within the core have been reliant on a mix of human subjectivity and physics-based models.

The novel aspect of this project is to apply recent advances in machine learning to the prediction of Earth's magnetic field. Machine learning is a technique in which computers 'learn' to interpret data via an explicit training process, using neural networks for example. Such algorithms have been used with great success in, for example, spotting patterns in consumer spending, speech recognition and in recommending movies within Netflix. In this project, we will train neural networks to learn how the magnetic field has changed, and to assess its predictability. Ultimately, the goal is to assess evidence for whether the geomagnetic field is likely to reverse.

The objectives of the PhD project are as follows:

  1. Assess predictability for the million-year evolution of the geomagnetic dipole.
  2. Investigate predictability of the global magnetic field using a 400-yr observation-derived model, observatory data sets and the latest satellite data.
  3. Assessment of predictability of numerical simulations of Earth's magnetic field.

References/background reading

Aubert, J, Finlay, C C, & Fournier, A. 2013. Bottom-up control of geomagnetic secular variation by the Earth's inner core. Nature, 502(7470), 219–223.

Cox, G A, and Brown, W J. 2013. Rapid dynamics of the Earth's core Astronomy and Geophysics, 54(5)5.32-5.37

Buffett, B & Davis, W. 2018. A Probabilistic Assessment of the Next Geomagnetic Reversal. Geophysical Research Letters, 45(4), 1845–1850.

Finlay, C C, Olsen, N, Kotsiaros, S, Gillet, N & Tøffner-Clausen, L. 2016. Recent geomagnetic secular variation from Swarm and ground observatories as estimated in the CHAOS-6 geomagnetic field model. Earth Planets and Space, 68(1), 1–18.

Jackson, A, Jonkers, A & Walker, M. 2000. Four centuries of geomagnetic secular variation from historical records. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series a-Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences, 358(1768), 957–990.

Mandea, M & Olsen, N. 2006. A new approach to directly determine the secular variation from magnetic satellite observations. Geophysical Research Letters, 33(15), L15306.

Stern, D A. 2002. Millennium of Geomagnetism, online material:

Vondrick, C, Pirsiavash, H & Torralba, A. 2016. Generating Videos with Scene Dynamics, NIPS

Ziegler, L B, Constable, C G, Johnson, C L & Tauxe, L. 2011. PADM2M: a penalized maximum likelihood model of the 0-2 Ma palaeomagnetic axial dipole moment. Geophysical Journal International, 184(3), 1069–1089.

Candidate requirements

We seek a highly motivated candidate with a strong background in mathematics, physics, computation, geophysics or another highly numerate discipline. Knowledge of geomagnetism is not required, and training will be given in all aspects of the PhD.


The student will learn techniques of machine learning using both Matlab and Python, and will have the opportunity to take relevant specific undergraduate or masters level courses. The student will also have access to a broad spectrum of training workshops at Leeds that include techniques in numerical modelling, through to managing your degree and preparing for your viva. The student will be a part of the deep Earth research group, a vibrant part of the Institute of Geophysics and Tectonics, comprising staff members, postdocs and PhD students. The deep Earth group has a strong portfolio of international collaborators which the student will benefit from.

Although the project will be based at Leeds, there are project partners in both Edinburgh and Copenhagen who the student will visit. There will also be opportunities to attend international conferences (UK, Europe, US and elsewhere), and other possible collaborative visits within Europe.

How to apply

Application deadline

Monday 7th January 2019.

Further details

For further details please contact Phil Livermore or Chris Davies.

The fate and impacts of microplastics in freshwater systems

Science Area: Groundwater

Title: The fate and impacts of microplastics in freshwater systems

BGS supervisor: Dan Lapworth

University supervisor: Tom Bond

DTP: SCENARIO, University of Surrey

Project Description

Microplastics can enter freshwater systems from a variety of sources, including littering and sewage effluent. Currently very little is known about how much of these microplastics are transferred into freshwater systems and river sediments and to what extent they act as vectors for the transport of hazardous pollutants such as metals. Initially you will focus on the development of robust experimental methods for the isolation and identification of plastics in freshwater systems. Starting with synthetic samples, you will compare the efficacy of different isolation and detection steps. Subsequently, you will document the occurrence of microplastics in river water and sediments, before and after riverbank filtration, in groundwater, and following drinking water treatment processes. Uptake and leaching of hazardous pollutants in plastic particles, including metals and plastic additives, collected across a range of environmental samples will be analysed. This will facilitate an assessment of the role that plastics play in the transport and release of hazardous pollutants across a range of freshwater environments. The project will provide you with the knowledge to evaluate the significance of pathways by which plastic litter migrates between different environmental compartments and what is its ultimate environmental fate.

Candidate requirements

This project would be suitable for students with a good degree (first class or 2:1) in environmental or physical sciences or engineering and/or students with a relevant MSc. Previous experience in undertaking fieldwork would be highly desirable, as would a high level of numeracy and experience of laboratory analysis. A willingness to undertake fieldwork and laboratory work is essential - this will form key activities for the PhD.


In the first year, you will be trained as a part of a single cohort on research methods and core skills at University of Surrey. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to MSc classes related to the student's projects and themes. Specifically, they will be able to attend modules on the University of Surrey’s renowned MSc in Water and Environmental Health Engineering. Specific technical training will also be given by the NERC and Surrey. In-kind assistance and hands-on experience in field and analytical methods needed to undertake the research will be provided by BGS and Surrey.

How to apply

Application deadline

25th January 2019

Further details

For further details please contact Tom Bond, University of Surrey

The fate of microplastics accumulating at groundwater-surface water interfaces

Science Area: Groundwater

Title: The fate of microplastics accumulating at groundwater-surface water interfaces

BGS supervisor: Daren Gooddy

University supervisor: Stefan Krause

DTP: CENTA, University of Birmingham

Project Description

Project Highlights

  • Revealing new process understanding on emerging microplastics pollution in freshwater environments and groundwater – surface water interfaces specifically
  • Interdisciplinary supervisory team with access to world-leading research infrastructure at BGS and UoB for work in the UK and India
  • Unique international (US, EU, AUS, NZ) training and secondment opportunities within H2020 RISE HiFreq project


The transport, fate and behaviour of MPs have been studied predominantly in marine ecosystems, with severe knowledge gaps remaining in freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems (Klein et al., 2015; Wagner et al., 2014; Windsor et al., 2018). There is growing consensus that rivers represent major conduits for MPs transport. Inputs from surface runoff and rivers, to a large extend discharging MPs that are only poorly contained in wastewater treatment plants are thought to be the main sources of MPs in marine environments.

Despite reasonable progress in understanding the transport and fate of microplastics in the worlds oceans, the sources, transport and fate of microplastics in freshwater environments are still critically under-researched.

In particular, the mechanisms controlling the transport and accummulation of different types of plastics are still unknown. This knowledge gap has critical consequences also for understanding how plasticisers such as Bisphenol-A (BPA) can be released from decaying microplastics in accummulation hotspots such as streambed sediments. BPA, as an endocrine disrupting substance is posing a severe thread to environmental and public health.

This project will pioneer investigations into the accummulation of microplastics at terrestrial - aquatic interfaces such as streambed environments.

It will investigate the mechanisms of potential BPA release during the physical and chemical breakdown of microplastics in freshwater environments and develop urgently needed understanding of the patterns and dynamics of microplastic accummulation and decay hotspots in freshwater systems.


The project will combine a unique portfolio of in-situ monitoring and sampling technologies with cutting-edge manipulation experiments within the University of Birmingham ECOLAB facility.

In-situ monitoring at selected urban river observatories (embedded within international monitoring programmes and potential for fieldwork in the UK and India) will provide crucial baseline data of microplastics distributions and composition in streambed environments. This information will be used to design physical scenarios for analysing the impact of multiple drivers and controls on microplastics accummulation in streambed environments as well as their potential decay and BPA release.

In addition to cutting-edge in-situ sensing technologies, the project will develop and use a wide range of analytical facilities, both, at UoB and BGS which include excitation emmision spectroscopy, raman spectroscopy, as well as particle size analysis.

References/background reading

Rachid Dris, Hannes Imhof, Wilfried Sanchez, Johnny Gasperi, Francois Galgani, Bruno Tassin, Christian Laforsch. Beyond the ocean: contamination of freshwater ecosystems with (micro-)plastic particles. Environ. Chem. 12, 539 (2015).

Karen Duis, Anja Coors. Microplastics in the aquatic and terrestrial environment: sources (with a specific focus on personal care products) fate and effects. Environ Sci Eur 28 (2016).

Dafne Eerkes-Medrano, Richard C. Thompson, David C. Aldridge. Microplastics in freshwater systems: A review of the emerging threats identification of knowledge gaps and prioritisation of research needs. Water Research 75, 63–82 (2015).

S Klein, E Worch, TP Knepper. Occurrence and Spatial Distribution of Microplastics in River Shore Sediments of the Rhine-Main Area in Germany.. Environ Sci Technol49, 6070-6 (2015).

Scott Lambert, Martin Wagner. Exploring the effects of microplastics in freshwater environments. Integr Environ Assess Manag 12, 404–405 (2016).


The project will additionally provide unique international training opportunities within the recent HiFreq H2020 RISE project as well as the Leverhulme Trust funded River Plastics research project lead by Prof. Krause. This includes wide ranging opportunities for collaboration during fully funded research visits or participation in international training courses at more than 20 European, US, AUS and NZ partner institutions.

How to apply

Please see the CENTA website and apply via the University of Birmingham.

Application deadline

The CENTA deadline is 12pm (noon) on 21st January 2019 please check with the University of Birmingham for their deadline.

Further details

For further details please contact Prof Stefan Krause

The stratigraphic record of landslide-triggered tsunamis in the coastal marshes of Aysén Fjord, Chile

Science Area: Centre for Environmental Geochemistry

Title: The stratigraphic record of landslide-triggered tsunamis in the coastal marshes of Aysén Fjord, Chile

BGS supervisor: Chris Vane

University supervisor: Matthew Brain

DTP: IAPETUS, Durham University

Project Description

Landslides in coastal areas can generate large local tsunamis (Miller, 1960) that can be much larger than those associated with subduction zone ruptures (Higman et al., 2018). In fjord settings, the confined nature of the coastal landscape can amplify wave heights considerably (Harbitz et al., 2014) and so increase tsunami hazard. For example, the landslides triggered by the April 21, 2007 Mw 6.2 earthquake generated tsunami waves in Aysén Fjord, Chile that caused several fatalities and damage to infrastructure and the local economy (Naranjo et al., 2009). There is a clear need to understand the recurrence interval and magnitude-frequency scaling of tsunamigenic landslides in fjordland settings. The historic/observational record of such events is limited and so stratigraphic records become our only source of information on prior tsunami events. Whilst offshore sediment-core records provide some insight into larger landslide-generated tsunamis (Bernhardt et al., 2015), these turbidite records may lack the temporal and spatial precision required to record smaller events, and their high-energy, erosive nature may remove evidence of earlier events.

An alternative approach is to use coastal marsh (both fresh- and salt-water) records of landslide-triggered tsunami; these inter- and supra-tidal sediments have been shown to reliably record evidence of historic tsunamis in mid-latitude, open-coast environments (e.g. Kelsey et al., 2005; Peters and Jaffe, 2010; Witter et al., 2016). Evidence of tsunami inundation is often based initially on identification of anomalous beds of offshore sediment in low-energy coastal environments where they would not normally be present (e.g. Gelfenbaum and Jaffe, 2003; Garrett et al., 2013), with additional, more detailed analyses from the 'coastal proxy toolkit' (e.g., sedimentology, micropaleontology and geochemistry). However, the utility of the techniques employed have yet to be assessed in fjordland settings with complex glaciological and tectonic histories. The aim of this PhD project is, therefore, to characterize the sedimentary, micropalaeontological and geochemical record of the 2007 Aysén Fjord tsunami and to use this as an analogue to determine whether the intertidal sediments of Aysén Fjord record evidence of landslides-triggered tsunamis over centennial to millennial timescales. In turn, this will allow us to consider the 2007 tsunami in a longer-term context.


The project will firstly involve detailed investigation of the near-surface environments of the intertidal zone and near-shore coastal marshes of Aysén Fjord, Chile. The objective here is to determine the character of the contemporary marsh environment(s) in terms of the bio-, litho- and chemo-stratigraphy. This will involve analysis of particle size distribution (laser granulometry) and particle density (gas pycnometry); elemental analysis (X-Ray Fluorescence) and assessment of microfossil content (pollen, diatoms and/or foraminifera). In addition, the organic geochemistry will be explored by using a variety of bulk- and molecular-level markers of biological/geological source. The analyses will include chemical screening techniques such as open-system Rock-Eval(6) pyrolysis, infra-red spectroscopy for organic and mineral matter characterisation, as well as more diagnostic molecular-level tools that provide an estimate of marine and terrestrial inputs to the sediment mass. The student will then undertake detailed stratigraphic investigation of near-surface sediments by collecting sediment cores and digging shallow pits, as appropriate. The objective is to assess the presence and spatial extent of sediments indicative of tsunami inundation during the 2007 event. These sediments will then be characterised in terms of their bio-, litho- and chemostratigraphy using the same suite of techniques noted above. This will enable us to define sedimentological criteria with which we can identify landslide-triggered tsunami throughout the stratigraphic record. The next stage of analysis will involve detailed stratigraphic investigation of deeper sediments at the study site. By collecting core samples across the site, the student will look to determine the presence and lateral persistence of potential past tsunami layers. These sediments will then be analysed in the laboratory to determine whether they show similarities with our modern analogue(s) of tsunami deposits. By developing an age-depth model using high-precision radiocarbon dating, pollution chronohorizons and short-lived radioisotopes, the student will then develop an understanding of the magnitude and return intervals of previous landslide-triggered tsunami events in Aysén Fjord. This resulting record can then be assessed relative to the subaqueous records of tsunami events in the fjord, allowing the relative benefits of each approach to be assessed. The palaeoenvironmental analysis and results will be considered in the context of a GIS study of Aysén Fjord using remotely-sensed topographic datasets and aerial imagery. The objective of this work is to consider geomorphic evidence of previous large-failure events and the tsunamigenic potential of unstable slopes in Aysén Fjord.

References/background reading

Bernhardt et al. 2015. Turbidite paleoseismology along the active continental margin of Chile – Feasible or not? Quaternary Science Reviews, 120: 71–92.

Garrett et al. 2013. Reconstructing paleoseismic deformation, 1: modern analogues from the 1960 and 2010 Chilean great earthquake. Quaternary Science Reviews. 75:11-21

Gelfenbaum and Jaffe, 2003. Erosion and Sedimentation from the 17 July, 1998 Papua New Guinea Tsunami. Pure and Applied Geophysics. 160: 1969–1999.

Harbitz et al. 2014. Rockslide tsunamis in complex fjords: From an unstable rock slope at Åkerneset to tsunami risk in western Norway. Coastal Engineering. 88: 101-122.

Higman et al. 2018. The 2015 landslide and tsunami in Taan Fiord, Alaska. Scientific Reports 8: 12993.

Kelsey et al. 2005. Tsunami history of an Oregon coastal lake reveals a 4,600 year record of great earthquakes on the Cascadia subduction zone. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 117: 1009-1032

Naranjo et al. 2009. Mass movement-induced tsunamis: main effects during the Patagonian Fjordland seismic crisis in Aisén (45º25’S), Chile. Andean Geology. 36 (1): 137-145.

Peters and Jaffe, 2010. Identification of Tsunami Deposits in the Geologic Record: Developing Criteria Using Recent Tsunami Deposits. Open-File Report 2010- 1239. 1239.pdf

Witter et al. 2016. Unusually large tsunamis frequent a currently creeping part of the Aleutian megathrust. Geophysical Research Letters. doi:10.1002/2015GL066083


This project is a Collaborative Studentship between Durham University and the British Geological Survey (BGS) Keyworth. The project will also benefit from external supervisory support from Dr Daniel Melnick

During the project, the successful candidate will obtain training to develop necessary key skills, including those required for field investigations of coastal stratigraphy (Durham); characterisation of the physical properties of coastal sediments (Durham); organic geochemistry and analysis (BGS Keyworth); microscopy and identification and interpretation of salt-marsh microfossil assemblages (Durham); radiometric and pollution-marker dating methods (Durham and BGS Keyworth); and GIS analysis of aerial imagery and topographic datasets (Durham).

The project will involve two field seasons in Chile to obtain data and samples for analysis. The student will also have the opportunity to present their results at national and international conferences to develop presentation and communication skills and disseminate results.

How to apply

Application deadline

Friday 18th January 2019 at 4pm

Further details

For further details please contact Dr Matt Brain , +44 (0) 191 33 43513 @cobradurham