PhD student receives prestigious research grant

A PhD student has been awarded funding to investigate the ‘fingerprint’ of organic matter in the Carboniferous Bowland Shale.

Joe Emmings (pictured) in our Department of Geology has been awarded the Donald Trowse Memorial Grant from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Foundation (AAPG-F). Joe will investigate organic compounds termed ‘biomarkers’ – a unique signature that preserves clues to the origin of the material within the Bowland Shale.

The Carboniferous period dates from 360 million to 280 million years ago. It gets its name from the vast deposits of coal produced when fluctuating seas drowned the tropical forests that covered much of North America and Europe.

“The origin of organic matter in ancient marine sediments like the Bowland Shale is often a mystery because many of the plants and animals that existed have few modern analogues,” Emmings said. “During the Carboniferous, land plants were beginning to diversify, but we do not yet understand the proportions that were eventually buried in marine sediments.

“We know even less about the plankton that lived in the ancient seas because their remains are difficult to recognise in the fossil record using conventional techniques like microscopy,” he continued. “Biomarkers will help to clarify which organisms produced the organic matter, a crucial step to understanding how the carbon cycle operated in the ancient world.”

Biomarkers also help to understand whether ancient seas were oxygen-rich, oxygen-poor or fluctuated between the two states. This is important because oxygen content of seas can be driven by changing sea level and may influence the amount of organic matter preserved.

Understanding where and why organic-rich intervals occur also helps to understand the Bowland Shale’s potential as a UK unconventional hydrocarbon resource.