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

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Wednesday, May 01, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Project Highlights
• State-of-the-art mass spectrometry instrumentation (amongst world-leading)
• International environmental research
• Supervisory team consists of world leaders in organic geochemistry and complex mixture analysis

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. Christopher 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 analyze the visualize the data, where samples can then be compared. Data processing methods will also be explored to optimize the sample comparisons.

Training and skills
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.

Partners and collaboration
Dr. Barrow has approximately 18 years of experience of working with FTICR mass spectrometry, petroleum-related samples, environmental samples, and data analysis and visualization of complex mixtures, collaborating with industry and with environmental organizations. Dr. Vane has approximately 20 years of experience of working in the field of organic geochemistry, and has been working with the BGS since 2000. This project is a Collaborative Studentship with the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the BGS supervisor (C. Vane) has applied to the BGS University Funding Initiative (BUFI) for an additional £10,000 to cover the analytical costs and augment the student’s RSTG.

Funding Notes

Funding eligibility criteria apply. Please visit the School of Life Sciences NERC CENTA webpage for more information.


Further 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.

How good is research at University of Warwick in Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 12.60

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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