Shell partnership for microfossil analysis

A NERC Open CASE Studentship on the theme of energy has brought together palynology PhD student Stephanie Wood, University of Sheffield, and leading petrochemical company Shell. Together they are investigating the rock strata under the Gulf of Mexico.

Analysis of microfossils

When Shell drill in technically challenging deep water environments like the Gulf of Mexico, it helps to know as much as possible about the rock and where oil or gas is likely to be found. Stephanie is analysing rock fragments from deep sea exploratory boreholes to recover assemblages of the microfossils present. Analysis of these microfossils, known as biostratigraphy, is gradually composing a picture of the rock strata.

A better understanding of the geology will always result in more precise prediction with respect to hydrocarbon exploration. In a business where drilling operation costs can be easily over $1 million per day, this can have a huge impact

Dr Ruckwied, Shell.

The microfossils include dinoflagellates – microscopic phytoplankton – that reveal what the marine environment was like when they died, whether it was shallow, had high salinity, warm water and so on. When compared and correlated with data from nearby oil wells and similar findings in the fossil record, the microfossils reveal how old the rock is and if it produced or contains oil or gas.


It is not only oil companies that will benefit from this research; the information that is being retrieved about dinoflagellate migration patterns is adding to knowledge and understanding of how the Gulf of Mexico formed and changed over time. When Stephanie’s thesis is published it will be the only biostratigraphy for dinoflagellates in the Gulf of Mexico. Such a unique record will enable scientists in other palaeontology disciplines and geologists to date their findings more accurately.

Skills gap

The studentship is also addressing the scarcity of skilled palynologists. Partnering with Shell trains a potential new employee, giving Stephanie the breadth of knowledge and skills needed by the industry.

Stephanie said: “Shell have been supportive and actively involved, providing me with the information, advice and professional development I need. It’s invaluable experience working and building a relationship with such great people.”

Dr Katrin Ruckwied, Stratigrapher/Palynologist at Shell and Stephanie’s superviser said: “In our opinion NERC studentships are a powerful link between industry and high-end research institutions at very competitive costs. Our industry has a shortage of micropaleontology specialists, with many contractors close to retirement and not enough young people educated to fill in. Therefore a NERC studentship enables us to sponsor and educate new talent to keep the global skill pool vital.”

Economic impact

Despite the massive costs involved, deep water exploration for oil and gas is economically viable and socially necessary. With global energy demands increasing, fossil fuels are still the most effective way to meet the need for power. Through the analysis of the abundant dinoflagellates in the rock record, a map of the rock underneath the Gulf will systematically identify where to drill, leading to safer and more efficient oil extraction.