Lyell’s namesake

New Research Center Planned in Scotland

Currently in the planning stages with many geoscientific ideas on the table, a $27 million research center dedicated to earth and marine science and technology will open its doors on the campus of Heriot-Watt University (HWU) in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2015.

It will be the result of a new partnership between the university and the British Geological Survey (BGS).

Named after Britain’s foremost 19th century geologist who also had strong links with the university, the Sir Charles Lyell Centre will stand out for its strong focus on serving both the public and private sectors through adoption of:

  • A holistic, A-to-Z approach to research in global change and ecosystems.
  • Seafloor-mapping, using advanced robotic vehicles.
  • Earthquake and volcanic risk and monitoring.
  • Energy security.

With the United Kingdom’s and Europe’s eyes fixed on the emerging industries of shale oil and gas and deep sea metal mining, the center will concentrate on the further pursuit of these ventures and tackling the environmental and logistical issues that inevitably arise with them, according to BGS executive director John Ludden.

It also will delve into ways of safely storing captured carbon in offshore basins, among with many other areas of research, he added.

Bringing science and technology together, the center will align HWU’s strengths in exploration geoscience, petroleum engineering, environmental monitoring and marine science with the BGS’s highly respected expertise in field mapping, volcanic and seismic hazard and risk assessment, petroleum systems evaluation, and structural analysis, said AAPG member John Underhill, chair of exploration geoscience at HWU.

Underhill also is a past AAPG Distinguished Lecturer, Matson Award winner and the 2013 recipient of the AAPG Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award.

“The new center represents a perfect marriage between earth and marine science, between pure and applied geosciences and between survey and academia,” Underhill said. “The result will be a new, integrated approach to both pure and applied earth and marine science in the United Kingdom.”

Academia-Industry Collaboration

The Lyell Centre will be a three-story, modern L-shaped building with an office-free, open-concept design that will serve as the impetus for the interaction of approximately 300 scientists and researchers. Its laboratories will be equipped for sensor testing and volcanology and include aquariums for robotic modeling.

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Scottish Funding Council, HWU and United Kingdom and Scottish government funders, the center will be located adjacent to and linked to the university’s renowned Institute of Petroleum Engineering.

The proximity is intended to encourage the collaboration between scientists and students needed for continued exploration for and production of unconventional oil and gas from newly discovered reservoirs, Ludden said.

“The BGS recently completed a resource assessment on shale gas for the United Kingdom government in northern England,” Ludden said. “We think there is a significant resource potential, even though England and Scotland are small countries. Some of our deposits are exceedingly thick – several kilometers thick.

“We will provide data for the industry,” he said. “We give them an indication of what might be there, and they take it over from there.”

HWU is a known leader in robotic design, where autonomous vehicle guidance provides divers with remote assistance during subsea research and exploration activity. Such devices could possibly lead to extracting metals, such as copper and zinc, from the ocean floor, Ludden said.

Furthermore, the BGS is collecting data that might allow for the eventual, safe storage of captured carbon in offshore areas, he added.

Referring to recent CO2 gas discoveries in the North Sea, Underhill said they provide a “robust, unifying and testable structural model” that can be used to assess and design carbon sequestration traps where CO2 storage over geological time has been proven.

“The results turn the exploration risk of finding unwanted CO2 into a carbon storage opportunity,” Underhill said. “They are the first proof of the concept that traps containing Leman Sandstone Formation reservoirs have a CO2 storage potential.

“This opens up the possibility for carbon sequestration in the basin,” he said, “something that will be investigated at the new center.”

The benefits of the BGS and HWU partnership also can be seen in the current International Ocean Drilling Project (IODP), in which the United Kingdom has been involved through BGS participation. Cores taken in the Arctic last year are helping environmental scientists better understand oceanographic circulation during glacial events as well as the industry’s need to calibrate seismic data in an undrilled frontier basin, Underhill said.

“The environmental scientists gained new insight into global change, while the industry benefitted from stratigraphic knowledge without having to drill a high-cost well,” he said. “This reduces the risk and uncertainty associated with exploration well drilling.”

A Holistic Approach

The Lyell Centre’s official agenda is being determined by a joint committee between the university and the BGS that is chaired by Steve Chapman, principal and vice chancellor of Heriot-Watt.

While all areas of research have not yet been decided, the committee has agreed that the research will follow a holistic approach.

For example, petroleum engineering research will begin with identifying and mitigating risks from drilling. It will include reservoir characterization and environmental baselines that will constantly be monitored to reduce environmental casualties. Lastly, it will dive into finding ways to safely decommission expired wells, Ludden said.

“Decommission will potentially be a big problem in the North Sea in the next 30 years or so with some rigs,” Ludden said. “We need to learn how to decommission the rigs and put the environment back to where it was.”

Also important are the introduction of new master’s programs in applied geosciences that will be offered through the Lyell Centre. Specific programs of study are still being determined.

“The co-location of the country’s foremost authority on British geology with an applied academic center of excellence will lead to new research synergies and training opportunities in existing fields of interest,” Underhill said. “It also presents the chance to cooperate and advance understanding in areas such as unconventional resources, extending the life of mature basins, like the North Sea, through the deliberate search for subtle stratigraphic plays, safe exploration in challenging environments – such as deep water, high-pressure-high-temperature or new frontiers – and in the assessment of environmental monitoring and impact.”

Michael Russell, the Scottish government minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, said the Scottish Funding Council’s support is recognition that the center will be one of Europe’s top research facilities.

“It allows the delivery of a unique post-graduate student experience based on cutting-edge collaboration between industry and universities,” he said. “This will help to ensure better educated, more skilled and more successful individuals and help increase sustainable economic growth.”

Hazards and Risks

The BGS and HWU partnership also has prompted change within the BGS, Ludden noted. For some time, the BGS has focused on pinpointing hazards. It now plans to take another step forward and analyze risks associated with the pursuit of energy, metals and urban development.

“The BGS and agencies like us have done lots of research on the hazards of volcanoes and earthquakes,” Ludden said. “Now we feel the need to think about the risk of these hazards and how we can mitigate them.”

He is expecting research from the Lyell Centre to potentially change the ways infrastructure is built in the United Kingdom and in Europe, especially given the known volcanic activity in Iceland and the consequences for nearby countries.

Just as research is important to new discoveries and solutions, so is keeping the public informed. Acknowledging how wary the public and media have become over hydraulic fracturing, both Ludden and Underhill support prompt and transparent communication to the public that both science and industry support safe and environmentally friendly advancement.

“There is a real need to have a better and more informed dialogue with the public, politicians and policy makers so they are receiving the best, well-informed, accurate and independent advice from geo-experts with no bias or vested interests,” Underhill said.

The BGS and HWU partnership was prompted by BGS’s need for a new building, which is currently located on the campus of the University of Edinburgh in the country’s capital. While discussing rebuilding its headquarters, the BGS received an invitation from HWU for a unique partnership.

Ludden said the BGS will continue to keep its existing partnerships with more than 40 universities, including the University of Edinburgh.

HWU is located on a former Brownfield site just west of Edinburgh. It moved onto the site in the 1960s, performed remediation and made it an environmentally attractive and spacious campus. Having restored the grounds so well, Underhill said the university retains planning permission for new buildings, which will allow the center to be constructed with few obstacles.

The Lyell Centre is expected to open in November 2015.

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Sir Charles Lyell: His Principles of Geology Live On

Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) was born in Kinnordy, Scotland, and is considered the leading geologist of his generation.

He is best known for authoring “Principles of Geology,” which made popular James Hutton’s concepts of uniformitarianism – the idea that the Earth was initially shaped by the same geological processes that occur today.

As close friend of Charles Darwin, Lyell was one of the first scientists to support his work, “On the Origin of Species.” Lyell’s wife, Mary Horner, was daughter of Leonard Horner, the founder of Heriot-Watt University in 1821.

Lyell was the first geologist to appreciate how studying relatively modern marine biological activities provided a deeper understanding of the Earth’s geological processes.

His studies of the Roman Macellum, or “Temple of Serapis,” in Pozzuoli (near Naples), Italy, in 1828 reveal his understanding of the significance of modern marine and geological processes.

There, he observed a horizontal line of marine mollusks on three columns of the temple that represented a former shoreline. He realized that the site had been submerged for a long period after Roman times and then lifted again.

His conclusion: Whatever the geological cause – we now know it to be underground ballooning and deflation of a magma chamber – it had been on a relatively rapid time scale (2,000 years).

The present elevation of the shoreline on the columns shows the site has risen even more since Lyell’s day.

He began to appreciate that geological processes were not always gradual, as many, himself included, had previously presumed and came to understand the time scales on which some operated. This deduction prompted him to revise his “Principles of Geology” multiple times.

Some say his willingness to be intellectually flexible when new data and evidence presented themselves is a large part of his scientific legacy.

– SARAH HAVILAND

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