Project Highlights:

  • Use state-of-the-art organic geochemistry analytical techniques in well-equipped laboratories
  • Design and run bespoke analytical experiments to provide insights into the dynamic nature of hydrocarbon generation, expulsion or retention in the subsurface
  • Develop an in-depth knowledge of mudstone sedimentology and stratigraphy and its potential to affect hydrocarbon generation.
  • Placements with Haliburton to gain industry experience and expertise, and place academic research in a petroleum systems context.



Specific technical challenges exist associated with the exploitation of hydrocarbons from the Carboniferous Bowland Shale unconventional target in northern England. This project will help address those challenges by providing an understanding of the formation’s capacity to: 1) generate hydrocarbons and 2) expel them from, or retain them within, organic-rich shales.

In recent years published research has increased our knowledge of the sedimentology and controls on organic matter of UK Corboniferous mudstones (e.g. Könitzer et al. 2014). Building on this work, the student will develop an understanding for the organisation of depositional systems in the Bowland shales and an appreciation for the expression of source rocks in mixed carbonate-clastic and clastic-dominated shale systems. Based on publically available data, an up-scaled subsurface model for the formation will be created to aid regional evaluation in the later stages of the project. The student will have access to specialist technical and scientific support through working with the British Geological Survey, Halliburton and University of Leicester.

To assess the retention or expulsion of hydrocarbons from these organic-rich mudstones, the student will develop a set of analytical experiments on selected shales samples that are intended to replicate the maturation of source rocks. The experimental design wil include consideration of how the results can be up-scaled to reflect stratigraphic heterogeneities observed in the subsurface. The student will undertake the analytical work at the British Geological Survey who will provide scientific and technical supervision on experimental analyses.

The overarching objective of the PhD will be to generate a more robust model for the generation, expulsion or retention of hydrocarbons from the Carboniferous shales of the UK which is grounded in the the results of regional research combined with detailed source rock experiments. These collated insights will provide an enhanced appreciation for the likely success, or otherwise, of a highly uncertain unconventional resource play.

Figure 1: Paleogeographical model for the organisation of Early Carboniferous depositional systems across northern England.  This model shows the likely extent of organic-rich shales (in green) and the likely extent of Carboniferous resource plays (as a semi-transparent stipple).


A three stage project is proposed. (1) standard sedimentological techniques will be used to understand the range of facies represented in the likely source rock systems of the Bowland Shale. This can be characterised from subsurface core where available and will include compiling representative inventory of source rock samples, derived from outcrop and the subsurface. Regional subsurface models for the formation will be built in Halliburton’s Decision Space Geology software and ported into Permedia for modelling subsurface pressure, temperature and maturity conditions.

Organic geochemical analyses will be undertaken on the sampled shales to assess the quality, source and thermal maturity of these as source rocks (e.g. Rock-Eval, analytical pyrolysis GC-MS and molecular biomarkers) and the proportion of hydrocarbons within them prior to experimentation. Open and closed system pyrolysis methods will be utilised to better understand the retention and expulsion of hydrocarbons.

In the final stages of the project, the principals of play fairway analysis will be used to better assess the likely extent and resource within any likely shale play.

Training and Skills

It is anticipated that the student will accrue the bulk of their CTC’s through work placement at Halliburton. Two main work placements will be required in the first and final years of study, both of which are two weeks (10 working days) in duration. During the first, the student will learn to manipulate industry standard software. This will include Decision Space Geology, Permedia and ArcGIS. During the second, the student will use these skills to undertake play fairway evaluation.


Year 1: Conduct a literature review and buld on existing data (published and unpublished) to extend the facies characterisation and regional framework of the Bowland Shale. Outcrop or existing core, source rock samples . Organic geochemical analyses will be undertaken prior to designing the new experiments design. Presentation of preliminary results at a national conference.

Year 2: The student will design and implement geochemical experiments, and undertake a preliminary evaluation of the results. Begin drafting of papers for peer-reviewed journals.

Year 3: Regional integration of previous analyses, up-scaling of models for resource play assessment, Data analysis, interpretation and thesis writing. Presentation of results at an international conference, (e.g. American Geophysical Union).


Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

Michael Stephenson is BGS Director of Science and Technology and has expertise in the sphere of conventional and unconventional hydrocarbons and the stratigraphic units they are preserved in.

Sarah Davies, University of Leicester has significant experience and understanding of the organisation of depositional systems in the Carboniferous of the UK.

Owen Sutcliffe and Alex Bromhead, Halliburton have in depth knowledge of unconventional petroleum play evaluation and analysis

Christopher Vane, BGS is a highly respected organic geochemist familiar with many of the technical challenges associated with hydrocarbon generation from the Bowland Shale.

Further Details

Dr. Christopher H. Vane:

British Geological Survey, Keyworth

E-Mail: chv@bgs.ac.uk


Dr Sarah Davies

University of Leicester

Email: sjd27@leicester.ac.uk

Prof Michael Stephenson

British Geological Survey, Keyworth

E-Mail: mhste@bgs.ac.uk 

This PhD will be hosted at the British Geological Survey (BGS). As the BGS cannot award degrees, applicants must follow the guidelines on applying for a CENTA project at the University of Leicester: https://www2.le.ac.uk/research-degrees/funding/centa/how-to-apply-for-a-centa-project, where they will be registered.

In addition to this they should send by email to bufi@bgs.ac.uk a current CV, names and addresses of two referees, personal statement written by the candidate, no longer than 1 page of A4, containing project title and detailing their reasons for applying to study a PhD and why they have selected their chosen doctoral research project