Training the next generation of specialist researchers and scientists

Specialist Disciplines

Rock fragments obtained from boreholes drilled more than 25,000 feet below the surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico could provide valuable clues as to where best to drill for oil and gas in the world's most challenging deep-water environments.

A research collaboration between the University of Sheffield and global energy giant, Shell, is investigating whether the rocks have the potential to be a hydrocarbon reserve by analysing the fossilised remains of microscopic phytoplankton.

"These microfossils contain valuable information about what the marine environment was like when they died," says PhD student Stephanie Wood.

"Among other things, they tell us the thermal maturity of the well, whether it was a shallow marine setting, whether it had high salinity, and whether the water was warm. When we compare and correlate this information with data from nearby oil wells and similar findings in the fossil record, the microfossils reveal how old the rock is and the likelihood of it producing oil or gas."

Stephanie, whose pioneering work is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), is taking part in a national scheme that is training the next generation of researchers and scientists in specialist disciplines where dangerous skills gaps are emerging.

“The energy sector has identified a scarcity of skilled palynologists – people who study dinoflagellates (microscopic phytoplankton), spores and pollen, both living and fossilised,” Stephanie Wood

Stephanie’s work in developing a map of the rock underneath the Gulf will systematically help to identify where to drill, leading to safer and more efficient oil and gas extraction

“It’s invaluable experience working and building a relationship with such great people,” she said. “I feel more confident in species identification, and feel like part of the international palynology community.”

There are big advantages for the industry too: “Our industry has a shortage of micropaleontology specialists, with many contractors close to retirement and not enough young people educated to fill in. NERC studentships enable us to sponsor and educate talentlike Stephanie to keep the global skill pool from running dry.” Dr Katrin Ruckwied, Stratigrapher/Palynologist, Shell.

Stephanie’s work in developing a map of the rock underneath the Gulf will systematically help to identify where to drill, leading to safer and more efficient oil and gas extraction.

“In a business where drilling operations costs can be easily over $1 million per day, this information can have a huge impact,” Dr Ruckwied, Shell.