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Advancing Knowledge on Subsurface Fugitive Gas Migration Associated with Geoenergy Activities

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, August 30, 2019
  • Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Geoenergy describes a range of energy technologies and sources that are derived from or interact with the geological subsurface. Historically, geoenergy relates to the extraction of conventional oil or gas which has provided the majority of global energy needs over the last 150 years. However, new emerging subsurface geoenergy technologies are being developed with the ambition to decarbonise the energy sector. Together new and old geoenergy techniques are expected to fulfil a large part of the global energy portfolio in the coming decades as decarbonisation progresses. Many geoenergy development activities involve the injection or extraction of gases (e.g. unconventional gas, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, compressed air or natural gas comprised primarily of methane) into or from the subsurface. Unfortunately these activities can result in the unintended release of fugitive gases into the shallow subsurface in a process termed gas migration (Cahill et al. 2019). The issue of gas migration applies to both new and emerging geoenergy techniques (e.g. shallow mine geothermal and carbon storage) as well as historic and traditional contexts (e.g. oil and gas development). Once released, fugitive gas may traverse the critical zone (i.e. the shallow subsurface comprised of potable groundwater, the root zone, ground surface and atmosphere), impact groundwater (Cahill et al 2017, 2018), and emit to the atmosphere contributing to greenhouse-gas emissions (Forde et al 2018, 2019). As geoenergy activities are set to increase in importance globally (Horsfield et al. 2010), understanding of gas migration in the subsurface and potential for resultant emissions to atmosphere will become critical if effective de-carbonisation of energy systems is to be achieved. Currently knowledge on this complex, multi-disciplinary and multi-context issue is lacking (Jackson et al. 2013, Soeder et al. 2018).

The central aim of this PhD project will be to advance fundamental scientific understanding of subsurface gas migration processes and greenhouse gas emissions to atmosphere associated with geoenergy activities. Particular focus is expected to be on assessing the potential environmental impacts of fugitive gas release; especially to groundwater resources. The successful candidate will join ongoing multi-disciplinary field studies as well as lead the initiation of additional new research activities taking the form of laboratory experiments, data analyses and computer modelling. The results of these research activities will then be rigorously synthesized to develop understanding on gas migration, aid assessment of the risks posed to the environment by fugitive gas and to design more effective monitoring and detection methodologies.

You will join a vibrant research community at the Lyell Centre, located near Edinburgh, UK, working on many aspects of geoenergy and environmental science. You will also work closely with the Energy and Environment Research Initiative ( being operated out of the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, Canada. As part of the project there will be opportunity to visit UBC and British Columbia to participate and contribute to ongoing field research relating to gas leakage from on-shore oil and gas wells. During the project you will use a wide range of innovative methodologies and cutting edge techniques in environmental engineering and hydrogeology. The project will therefore provide excellent multidisciplinary training and an exciting research opportunity to interact amongst the fields of petroleum geoscience, geology, hydrogeology, aqueous, gas and isotope geochemistry, microbiology, vadoze zone science and micro-meteorology.

Funding Notes

The scholarship will cover tuition fees and provide an annual stipend of £15,009 for the 36 month duration of the studentship.

This project is available to ALL students, whether home, EU or overseas. The successful candidate should have a strong background in hydrogeology, hydrogeochemistry, environmental engineering, earth sciences and possess at minimum a masters and undergraduate degree in related disciplines. Experience relating to groundwater contamination, hydrogeological field investigations, petroleum engineering, greenhouse gas emissions and/or any form of geoenergy activities is also desirable.


Cahill, A.G., Beckie, R., Ladd, B., Sandl, E., Goetz, M., Chao, J., Soares, J., Manning, C., Chopra,C., Finke, N., Hawthorne, I., Black, A., Mayer, K.U., Crowe, S., Cary, T., Lauer, R., Mayer,B., Allen, A., Kirste, D., Welch, L., 2019. Advancing knowledge of gas migration and fugitive gas from energy wells in northern British Columbia, Canada. Greenh. Gas. Sci.Technol. 00, 1–18
Cahill, A.G., Steelman, C.M., Forde, O., Kuloyo, O., Ruff, E., Mayer, B., Mayer, K.U., Strous, M., Ryan, M.C., Cherry, J.A., Parker, B.L., 2017. Mobility and persistence of methane in groundwater in a controlled release field experiment. Nat. Geosci. 10, 289–294.
Cahill, A.G., Parker, B.L., Mayer, B., Mayer, K.U., Cherry, J.A., 2018. High resolution spatial and temporal evolution of dissolved gases in groundwater during a controlled natural gas release experiment. Sci. Total Environ. 622-623, 1178–1192.
Forde, O.N., Mayer, K.U., Cahill, A.G., Mayer, B., Cherry, J.A., Parker, B.L., 2018. Vadose zone gas migration and surface effluxes following a controlled natural gas release into an unconfined shallow aquifer. Vadose Zone J.
Forde, O.N., Mayer, K.U., Hunkeler, D., 2019. Identification, spatial extent and distribution of fugitive gas migration on the well pad scale. Sci. Total Environ. 652,
Horsfield, B., Scheck-Wenderoth, M., Krautz, H. J., Mutti, M. (2010): Geoenergy: From visions to solutions. - Chemie der Erde - Geochemistry, 70, Suppl. 3, pp. 1.
Jackson RE, Gorody AW, Mayer B, Roy JW, Ryan MC, Van Stempvoort DR (2013) Groundwater protection and unconventional gas extraction: the critical need for field-based hydrogeological research. Groundw 51:488–510
Soeder, D. J. Groundwater Quality and Hydraulic Fracturing: Current Understanding and Science Needs. Groundwater 2018.56852

How good is research at Heriot-Watt University in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 17.50

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

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