PhD Studentship & Secondment in China under
the SEW-REAP Programme

Tracing fugitive gases in areas of hydrocarbon production and their environmental impacts
on shallow drinking groundwater resources

Supervisors: Dr Zheng Zhou1, Dr Greg Holland2, Professor Yunpeng Wang3, Dr Ben Surridge1 and Dr Peter Wynn1

  • 1 Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, UK
  • 2 School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester, UK
  • 3 Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China


Why we want to do this science

Unconventional oil and gas development by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has revolutionized the petroleum industry. It also generated intense public concerns about potential impacts of fugitive gases to groundwater quality. However, due to complexity of natural methane formation mechanisms, contamination of shallow drinking water aquifers by the fugitive gases derived from hydrocarbon exploration and production wells remain controversial. This project applies geochemical isotope tools to trace fugitive gases in areas of hydrocarbon production. An improved understanding of the sources and pathways of methane to the shallow groundwater systems will permit assessment of environmental impacts of fugitive gases and enhance the management of hydrocarbon production.

Natural methane in shallow drinking groundwater systems is predominantly biogenic. It is formed by microbial methanogenesis below ~80oC. In contrast, methane in deep sedimentary basins where hydrocarbon production occurs is mainly formed by thermal breakdown of organic matters, such as kerogen, coal and higher molecular weight hydrocarbons. Formation temperature of thermogenic methane is generally higher above ~60oC and reaching 160oC-200oC, depending on the depth of formation. The stable carbon (13C/12C) and hydrogen (D/H) isotopic composition of methane are powerful and important tools to identify the origin of methane in nature, but they are not without problems - methane from different origins often yield overlapping isotopic compositions. As a consequence, such data are often inconclusive and it is difficult to use them alone to distinguish thermogenic methane in shallow drinking groundwater systems that derived from the hydrocarbon production in the area. Other tracers are required to trace the thermogenic methane in the groundwater systems.

Noble gases (He, Ne, Ar, Kr and Xe) have long been proven as a tracing tool to investigate natural gas and hydrocarbon systems. They are chemically inert and occur in small enough quantities for noble gas production from natural radioactivity to significantly alter their isotopic signature, providing fluid source and age information. Similarly, small quantities of magmatic fluid addition or noble gases derived from the atmosphere, dissolved in groundwater, are readily resolved due to their respective unique isotopic signature. The property of noble gas isotopes make them ideal tool to trace thermogenic methane from deep sedimentary basins.

This project will apply both stable C/H isotopes and noble gas isotopes to identify fugitive gases in shallow drinking groundwater systems, investigate their migration pathways and model the mechanisms that control the methane migration and accumulation processes. A sampling campaign will be conducted in the hydrocarbon production areas in China, such as Sichuan basin and Erdos basin. Samples from both hydrocarbon production wells and shallow drinking water wells in the surrounding area will be collected. All samples will be analysed at GIG-CAS or other institutes of Chinese Academy of Sciences for stable isotopes. Noble gas isotopes will be analysed at Lancaster University and Manchester University. The isotope data will provide a basis to constrain the sources and fate of fugitive gases in shallow drinking groundwater systems. The work proposed here will provide novel and original scientific data that will enhance our understanding of environmental impacts of hydrocarbon production.

What's in it for you?

Become an expert in isotope analysis. You will use a range of analytical methods, including standard and novel approaches, to understand fugitive gases in shallow drinking groundwater systems. You will receive training in cutting edge analytical techniques and instrumentation in Lancaster University, Manchester University and Chinese Academy of Sciences. Environmental management is a key priority for both governments and industry worldwide and therefore you will be well-placed to enter the job market at the end of your studies.

Develop links with external organisations. This project benefits from linkages with different research institutes and industry. You will be able to network and liaise with overseas partners. This is an excellent opportunity for you to gain an appreciation of scientific attitudes and working methods of different cultures.

Join an exciting research environment. You will benefit from the research training programmes offered by the Faculty of Science and Technology at Lancaster University and Chinese Academy of Sciences, by being part of the large and vibrant Lancaster Environment Centre and accessing the extensive research facilities at GIG-CAS.

Be part of the EU SEW-REAP studentship community. This studentship is one of 6 PhD studentships within the framework of the Europe Aid-funded SEW-REAP ("Addressing food Security, Environmental stress and Water by promoting multidisciplinary Research EU And China Partnerships in science and business") project which aims to provide solutions to the Agri-Food-Water-Environment Nexus within China through collaborative research.

Who should apply?

We are seeking applications from graduates or those who expect to graduate in 2016 with a good BSc or Masters degree. You would ideally have a strong background in geosciences, natural sciences, environmental sciences, chemistry, physics and mathematics. You should be interested in lab based technique development using world-class instrumentation. You must have demonstrable potential for creative, high-quality PhD research. You must also be a UK or EU citizen, in order to be eligible for the SEW-REAP funding.

Additional details

This project requires the PhD student to carry out a major part of the research for a minimum of 24 months in China at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou. Secondees are expected to take Mandarin lessons, before heading to China and/or once there, such that they can achieve to pass HSK level 3. The Lancaster Confucius Institute can readily cater for the study of this level.

The small print

Studentship funding: The studentship provides a monthly stipend at an average of ~1100 (tax free) per month funded by EU and GIG-CAS for 36 months. Lancaster Environment Centre waives your tuition fee for 3 years. You will be responsible for your own writing up fees (currently 230 (2016/17) and living costs if you require a fourth year of study. Successful applicants will also be encouraged to apply for further CAS funding, which is available through CAS University scholarships. Unfortunately studentships are not available to non-UK/EU applicants.

Academic requirements: First-class or 2.1 (Hons) degree or Masters degree (or equivalent) in an appropriate subject.

Start Date: As soon as possible or before July 2017.

For further information or informal discussion about the position, please contact Dr. Zheng Zhou (

Application process: Please upload a completed application form and a covering letter outlining your background and suitability for this project at LEC Postgraduate Research Applications,

You also require two references, please send the reference form (download from to your two referees and ask them to email it to Andy Harrod (, Postgraduate Research (PGR) Co-ordinator, Lancaster Environment Centre by the deadline.

Due to the limited time between the closing date and the interview date, it is essential that you ensure references are submitted by the closing date or as soon as possible.

posted: 15 March 2017     Please mention EARTHWORKS when responding to this advertisement.