Wednesday, 13 April 2016

BGS getting down to business

The British Geological Survey released its Business Plan (BP) for the three year period starting April 2016. This plan underpins the BGS strategy “Gateway to the Earth”.

BGS is constantly reviewing its science priorities and these have largely moved towards a programme of harnessing new technology to instrument the Earth so that we understand geological processes in real time. This will help society to:

  •          Use its natural resources responsibly
  •          Manage environmental change
  •          Be resilient to environmental hazards

As part of our business planning we will be implementing the £31 million Energy Security and Innovation Observing System (ESIOS) to underpin new developments in subsurface energy management. This will be supported by BGS being part of a Midlands regional capital investment in partnership with Midlands Innovation “Energy Research Accelerator (ERA)" of £60 million, plus a twice this amount in supporting funding from industry. BGS will be required to resource both of these capital investments in providing technological development and operation and undertaking new research with partners.

At the same time the new BGS Business Plan sees a significant upscaling of our overseas activities, largely in response to targeted funding on Overseas development for UK government as part of the Global Challenges Research fund and also the Newton fund. We anticipate that as much as 30% of BGS activities may be redirected overseas in support of development, but at the same time underpinning UK government policy.

BGS will enhance its position in the UK devolved governments; in Scotland at the Lyell Centre which we will be developing with Heriot-Watt University and in Cardiff and Belfast in co-locating with Cardiff University and Queens Belfast. We will further enhance our activities with the University of Nottingham and other partner universities through key joint ventures.

Within the period of the Business Plan BGS hopes to have moved from its current position within the NaturalEnvironmental Research Council (NERC) UK to a Government corporation alongside similar bodies to ourselves (such as the Met office, Ordnance Survey and the National Physical Laboratory) which advise government and work at the cusp of academic research industry and government.

John Ludden

Monday, 21 March 2016

How is the BGS responding to the urgent challenge set out by the Paris accord?

The Paris climate summit proposed some stringent targets for global warming and emissions. These can only be reached if we manage to engineer a reduction in greenhouse gas output and currently the main means of achieving this are switching to gas away from coal and deploying renewable energy and increased nuclear sourced energy. 

BGS was asked by Friends of the Earth how we were responding to the Paris decisions and the BGS Director of Science and Technology has produced a reply which is copied below.

BGS provides scientific evidence on subsurface processes that are relevant to the economy of the UK, and may be used by government in support of policy.

Response to Friends of the Earth


BGS is an internationally recognised centre in several sciences that contribute to lower emissions, including carbon capture and storage, geothermal and the siting of offshore wind farms.

Carbon capture and storage

Predictions like those of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) New Policies Scenario suggest that coal will continue to be used heavily in the future, and will probably remain the backbone of global electricity generation for many years to come. This underlines the need for a switch away from coal, and for the coal that is to be burnt to be used in power stations that are fitted with carbon capture and storage facilities. A look at three large countries with big coal resources, China, India and South Africa, illustrates the problem. China is by far the largest coal consumer in the world, accounting for almost half of global coal use in 2010. In the IEA New Policies Scenario, China’s coal demand will increase to over 2850 million tonnes per year by 2020, and stabilise above 2800 million tonnes until 2035. Coal will continue to provide more than half of China’s electricity until 2035. Similarly in the New Policies Scenario, South African coal production, which is mainly for electricity, will peak around 2020 but continue to be high into the future. India is struggling to electrify its rural economy and it is likely that much of this electricity will come from coal.

In Europe for 2020, the EU has committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 1990 levels, and further cuts are being decided for 2050. This commitment is one of the headline targets of the Europe 2020 growth strategy and is being implemented through binding legislation. Power generation will have to take a particularly large part in emissions reductions, mainly by focussing on increasing surface renewables (wind, tidal and solar), nuclear and geothermal power, but it is likely that carbon capture and storage on fossil fuel power plants will be important.

Carbon capture and storage may be particularly important for the 2°C limit set at COP 21, in Paris in December. Most of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scenarios limiting global temperature increases to 2 °C include some form of ‘negative emissions’ or permanent removal of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the atmosphere. Of the 400 IPCC climate scenarios that have a 50% or better chance of less than 2 °C warming, more than 300 assume the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies. The most popular of these is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). BECCS involves growing energy crops for power stations for electricity and scrubbing out the CO2 in the flue gas for permanent sequestration in the subsurface.

The main constraints on BECCS are how much land and resource can be devoted to biofuel crops, and how much subsurface storage space for carbon dioxide there is. The first is a difficult problem and not within BGS’ remit. Given the weight that the IPCC gives to BECCS there is an urgent need to explore the potential ecological limits to, and environmental impacts of, implementation of BECCS at a scale relevant to climate change mitigation.

BGS main research in CCS involves questions over the feasibility of large scale geological storage of carbon dioxide. Though in Norway two deep subsurface sites 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide have been safely stored, other geological environments must be tested and it is vital that more demonstration and full scale schemes are started, like the Aquistore scheme in south-eastern Saskatchewan where 40000 tonnes of carbon dioxide has been safely stored, and where 1100 tonnes of CO2 are injected per day.


BGS is researching the feasibility of geothermal heat for residential and civic use including the use of disused mine workings as a geothermal resource in urban areas, geothermal from deep sedimentary rocks, and ground source heat pumps. Geothermal could be an important way for the UK to achieve its goals in emissions reduction.

Although the UK is not actively volcanic, there is still a substantial resource of geothermal energy at shallow depths but it is exploited in different ways. The upper 10–15 m of the ground is heated by solar radiation and acts a heat store. This heat can be utilised by ground source heat pumps that can substantially reduce heating bills and reduce emissions. The heat from the sun is conducted downwards into the ground. At a depth of about 15 metres, ground temperatures are not influenced by seasonal air temperature changes and tend to remain stable all year around at about the mean annual air temperature (9–13°C in the UK). Hence, the ground at this depth is cooler than the air in summer and warmer than the air in winter. This temperature difference is exploited by ground source heat pumps that are used for heating and/or cooling of homes and office buildings. There are different types of systems which can be broadly grouped into closed-loop systems and open-loop systems.

With increasing depth, the ground temperatures are also affected by the heat conducted upwards from the Earth's core and mantle, known as the geothermal heat flow. When combined with the thermal conductivities of the rocks this allows the prediction of subsurface temperatures. The UK's geothermal gradient, the rate at which the Earth's temperature increases with depth, has an average value of 26°C per km. Some rocks contain free flowing water (groundwater) and so at depth this water will be warm and can be extracted for use in district heating schemes or for industrial uses such as heating green houses.

There are also regions in the UK where the rocks at depth are hotter than expected. This occurs in granite areas because some granite generates internal heat through the radioactive decay of the naturally occurring elements potassium, uranium and thorium. Granites have very little free flowing water, but it is possible to engineer the fracture system such that water can be made to flow from one borehole to another through the granite. The extracted hot water is at a sufficiently high temperature to drive an electricity generating turbine. Parts of Cornwall have geothermal gradients that are significantly higher than the UK average due to the presence of granite and have potential for geothermal power generation.

Offshore wind turbines

The Marine Environmental Mapping Programme (MAREMAP) and the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), both of which BGS is a part, are coordinated efforts to improve seafloor and shallow geological mapping to establish the ground and geotechnical conditions for many offshore wind turbines. The shallow geology can produce impacts and constraints on design, installation and operation of seabed structures and sub-seabed foundations. Some of these constraints relate to the variability in the composition and distribution of Quaternary sediments (at the seabed and in the subsurface) and bedrock within the first 50 m below the seafloor. Additionally, other constraints relate to the geological processes that have occurred in the past or are active today.

As well as these sciences aimed at direct emissions reduction, BGS is working intensively on the effects of coming climate change, including on groundwater levels (in the UK and in Africa), landscape and erosion, and sea level. We are working with a whole range of partners on how these changes can be forecasted and planned for so that society is more resilient to change.

BGS is, of course, interested in all other areas of research into emissions reduction and climate change science and welcomes discussions on its science strategy.

Best wishes,

Prof Mike Stephenson

Director of Science and Technology, BGS

Monday, 14 March 2016

The British Geological Survey in 2016

BGS is continually refreshing itself, ensuring that it is relevant and provides up to date geological science solutions for the UK and globally.

I have used this presentation at various events to outline the British Geological Survey (BGS), what it does and who it works with. The presentation also includes information on our discussions with government and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), on the best place to house BGS in the future to give us the flexibility to provide impact that will help the UK economy.

On numerous recent occasions with stakeholders, we have concluded that BGS should move from NERC ownership to a Government owned public corporation. BGS has welcomed visits from international geoscience agencies and surveys, many of whom view BGS as a model geological survey. We have had discussions with universities who are interested in partnerships and especially combining our applied science and theirs in creating joint research initiatives that will yield impact. BGS has worked hard on developing links with other research centres and government departments.

Please browse through the slides ... not only do they show how BGS geological mapping science has changed over time, who we partner with, how we deliver world-class infrastructure but they underline the importance of a dynamic workforce. 

John Ludden

March 2016

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

BGS and the Comprehensive Spending Review 2015

The Chancellor released his Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) this week.  It is fair to say that our worst fear of a cut to research funding was not realised and, to his credit, the Chancellor has kept the research baseline funding at real costs - this means in line with inflation and better than the cash settlement we were expecting as a "best case" scenario. Nonetheless we should expect all of the extra funding from real cost to be targeted on specific projects most probably involving global development.

Nonetheless, the CSR does place a significant part of the research budget in a global challenges fund and as yet it is not clear how this will be managed; it could be top sliced or accounted for in the different parts of the new Research UK structure, which is likely to become a reality. Thus the various parts of the research base will report into a director of Research UK in line with the recommendations of the Nurse review, which recommends keeping the research councils, but strengthening their overall leadership.

BGS should be able to exploit the interface with a number of the research areas of Research UK and it is good that this is now an explicit opportunity, rather than something to be encouraged. However, the way research and innovation funding is awarded and evaluated will change in the next few years and BGS needs to be prepared to defend with quantitative based metrics, both its research and its public good value.  I also note that the research council has yet to decide its different allocations to individual councils and then internally within NERC.

The Midlands Energy Research Accelerator (ERA) was allocated a £60 million and the Energy Test Bed in Chester were cited. Thus we are well positioned in the geoenergy area, with investment in gas, new nuclear and energy storage.  Notwithstanding this, the decision to remove the funding from the Carbon Capture and Storage pilot projects is perplexing and we will need to evaluate where best BGS should be positioning itself.

Major infrastructure and capital investments were also outlined and BGS will need to provide the underpinning geological models.

Although the result is positive for science, both in research (discovery and applied) and innovation, this does not affect the restructuring plan that we have announced. The significant pay cost pressures on our budget from 2016/17 mean that BGS must create budgetary headroom and restructuring will enable it to position itself for new opportunities in the geoenergy, data and natural hazards areas. 

Repositioning BGS in the science landscape will be a priority in the coming months as the Research UK budget develops.

Finally, I commend the 2014-15 BGS Annual Review in which we intentionally focussed on the Public Good values of BGS, please read it: the science it outlines is excellent (sorry we cannot put all of it in a short report) and the format and presentation superb. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Baseline Monitoring in Lancashire

BGS is about to begin an enhanced baseline monitoring programme across the UK at locations with a potential for shale gas and oil. This will take place at sites where an operator's licence is held and planning permission has been approved for testing shale gas extraction. BGS plans to start field work in the north-west where the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has approved the Lancashire Monitoring Programme as Public Good research.

We intend to monitor
  1. Groundwater – including baseline and ongoing groundwater monitoring for chemistry, dissolved gases (such as methane), stable isotopes, organics, residence time indicators, and naturally occurring radionuclides (NORM) 
  2. Induced seismicity related to fracking 
  3. Baseline for operational fugitive emissions and air quality assessment 
  4. Ground motion (subsidence and uplift) - through iSBAS ground motion inSAR 
  5. Fluid flowback from the fracking process 
All data and interpretations will be made available through new webpages on the BGS website which are currently being developed.

Initially, two operators, Centrica and Cuadrilla, have agreed to provide access to their data and operations for the science-based monitoring programme, from baseline measurements through to hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) and production tests to post operation (abandonment). We will do this with a consortium involving the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Loughborough and Manchester and the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM) operated by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS).

Our scientists and those of our partners have already started planning field activities and will be intensifying actions in the region in February 2015.

We consider that this programme will:
  • Help regulators refine their protocols for the UK shale industry 
  • Inform the public, concerned groups and operators on baseline levels in the immediate area of a shale gas extraction site 
  • Provide the public with information and understanding on the effects of shale gas extraction 
  • Improve scientific understanding of the UK sub-surface environment for unconventional hydrocarbons which is significantly different to that of the USA and Canada 
  • Facilitate new sensor technology development for environmental monitoring 
  • Help establish good practice for industries involved in the development of unconventional hydrocarbons
  • Establish world-leading expertise

Friday, 12 December 2014

Geochemical data for the south-west

BGS with a suite of partners including CEH, BAS and universities ran Tellus south-west in 2013. This was the first such survey which involved the traditional Tellus geophysical suite of acquisition and also high resolution lidar and also multispectral analysis. These were complemented by the G-BASE programme of systematic sampling and the determination of chemical elements in samples of stream sediment, stream water and soil in the region.  

The Tellus approach is state of the art in terms of provision of baseline information and underpins the BGS core role in survey which is to provide a marker of the current state of the environment for the measurement and monitoring of future change.

In particular the G-BASE data allows us to assess the condition and health of soils and sediments for agricultural and ecosystem functions and quantify human impact on the environment, indicating elevated concentrations of potential harmful elements. Furthermore it permits the identification of new opportunities for the responsible use of natural resources.

I am pleased to announce the publication of the G-BASE data set for the south-west that will complement Tellus. Our staff have collected and analysed data from 3779 stream sediment, and 1154 soil samples in Cornwall and parts of Devon and Somerset. Analytical data are available for Ag, Al, As, Ba, Bi, Br, Ca, Cd, Ce, Cl, Co, Cr, Cs, Cu, Fe, Ga, Ge, Hf, I, In, K, La, Mg, Mn, Mo, Na, Nb, Nd, Ni, P, Pb, Rb, S, Sb, Sc, Se, Si, Sm, Sn, Sr, Ta, Te, Th, Ti, Tl, U, V, W, Y, Yb, Zn, and Zr and are part of another world class data set from the BGS.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The European dimension

BGS is involved in Europe in a number of ways, the most lucrative being through EC funded projects, but also through multi-lateral and bi-lateral collaboration that have developed over the years.

Our current funding from Europe is about £1 million and is down on recent highs which approached £2 million. As with many competitive funding sources there are phases of funding and from time to time the phases coincide thus creating a dip or artificial high. We are currently in a dip with respect to EC funding that we had managed to build to about 5% of our total income.

Prognoses for the future indicate that we may be able to increase this income, but it is doubtful that the total will exceed ~10% of our funding. This is about the amount for funding that the EC puts into research as national governments fund the rest.

Should we put such an effort into this funding source as the overheads to win the funding is high and the EC funders do not pay anywhere near the full cost of the research? I have spent a lot of time recently trying to shore up our longer term funding from Europe and ask myself this very question.

I feel that the answer is “yes”, as this work establishes us as international experts and we can then use this credibility to win more lucrative contracts. Nonetheless, the work we do for Europe must be work we would normally do internally. Thus developing new data infrastructure that can also be used in BGS projects in general, getting the EC to fund the construction of laboratories that serve additional purposes or funding data products that we can integrate into national or international data bases that add value to BGS as a whole are the sorts of endeavours we need to undertake. In general these fall in the infrastructure development domain.

I think we are positioning ourselves as leaders in European data delivery for the geosciences and this should be our major goal with Europe. Our partners are not necessarily the other national surveys and as some of you know I am somewhat cynical about an approach that includes all the surveys as partners. Our preferred partners are institutes and entities that we may not intuitively work with, but that need our resources in data processing and also from whom we can learn to build new data products. Why not reposition and reskill to achieve the “the Ultimate Earth model” that is something of the scale of the “human brain project”.  

Understanding the shallow and deep Earth will bring benefits in understanding how we use it for Energy and storage, but also how we remain resilient to geological hazards, like earthquakes, landslides and volcanoes. For the first time computing technology brings this understanding within our grasp but it will involve a joint effort to collect and process data across Europe and the globe.