PhD available – The influence of subsurface microbiology on geoenergy systems

A geoenergy renaissance is required for a low carbon economy and energy security of supply. Geoenergy systems that have been proposed include disused coal workings for district heating (see image below, https://www.ukgeos.ac.uk/) granites for geothermal electricity and combined energy and resource systems. All geoenergy systems involve circulating fluids from and into the subsurface, which is a habitat for microbial life, although the UK subsurface is poorly characterised. Considering microbes is important because they catalyse mineralogical changes, influence aqueous geochemistry, may impact on the effectiveness of geoenergy system operation and potentially cause adverse effects on the environment. For example, coal workings contain pyrite; microbial pyrite oxidation generates iron oxides, acidity and dissolved metals which are serious pollutants and can impede geoenergy system operation through clogging and corrosion. Microbial activity may also produce corrosive sulfide, which may damage pipework. Microbes can form biofilms which may impede fluid flow in the subsurface or infrastructure and biofilm formation may be driven by changes in flow, temperature and the availability of carbon and energy substrates. This PhD research will characterise field samples and perform laboratory experiments to investigate the potential for the occurrence and significance of these risks, and propose risk mitigation measures.

This project will test the hypotheses that diverse microbial communities are present in the geological environments that are proposed to be used for geoenergy systems, and that by understanding their composition and functioning we can predict and mitigate the impacts associated with any enhanced microbial activity that may occur during geoenergy system operation via:

  • analysing groundwater samples from various geoenergy systems to quantify and characterise microbial communities
  • identifying links between microbial community composition, function, geochemistry and lithology
  • designing and applying in situ passive samplers to grow microorganisms in subsurface environments and assess the potential for biofilm potential, including through molecular approaches
  • isolating microorganisms from geoenergy systems to consider the likelihood of adverse microbial metabolisms impacting on system operation and the environment e.g. S cycling, methane/other gas production.

The research will involve field and laboratory work such as: collection of groundwater samples, design and deployment of passive samplers in different lithology geoenergy formations; measurement of groundwater composition by ion chromatography, ICP-MS etc.; scanning electron microscopy, optical microscopy to count cells and characterise biofilms; microbiology experiments such as culturing, isolation and microcosms; molecular biology applying next generation DNA sequencing. Flexibilities exist for the student to be involved in experimental design and in decisions regarding choice of analytical techniques.

The student will be supervised by experts in geomicrobiology and biogeochemistry (Newsome) and aqueous geochemistry and applied field research (Crane), and will be part of the EM3 research group within Camborne School of Mines (http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/em3group/). As well as being part of the GeoNetZero CDT (https://geo-net-zero.hw.ac.uk/), the student will have access to a wealth of training opportunities from the University of Exeter’s Researcher Development Programme, which offers a wide range of workshops, seminars, and online resources covering topics such as project management, writing, resilience and wellbeing, public engagement, research ethics, IT skills, careers prep, data sharing, and teaching.

The ideal candidate will have a strong background in a relevant discipline, such as Earth Sciences, Geoscience, Geology, Microbiology, Molecular Biology, Environmental Chemistry, or Biology, with a particular interest in environmental geomicrobiology and geochemistry.

Location and eligibility:

Camborne School of Mines, Cornwall Campus

The University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in September 2021 or as soon as possible thereafter. For eligible students who meet the residency requirements outlined by the NERC the studentship will cover home student tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,285 for 4 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study. Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding. Further information about eligibility can be found here.

Entry requirements:

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology.

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.0 in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see http://www.exeter.ac.uk/postgraduate/apply/english/).

How to apply

In the application process (http://www.exeter.ac.uk/studying/funding/award/?id=4084) you will be asked to upload several documents.

  • CV
  • Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)
  • Two references from referees familiar with your academic work. If your referees prefer, they can email the reference direct to quoting the studentship reference number.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 1 February 2021.  Interviews will be held on-line or on the University of Exeter Penryn Campus the week commencing 1 March 2021.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers)  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor (l.newsome@exeter.ac.uk).

Laura Newsome

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