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Geoscientists for the Energy Transition

The importance of geoscience research and training and how it will help us to decarbonize.
This article appeared in Vol. 18, No. 2 - 2021

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Geoscientists for the Energy Transition

The industrial revolution was initially fueled by coal and the subsequent development of modern society was underpinned by oil and gas. Their use led to unprecedented economic growth and a rise in the quality of life, but it has also come at the cost of creating a carbon-intensive economy. The challenge before us now is to decarbonize, reduce greenhouse emissions and tackle climate change while simultaneously alleviating fuel poverty, meeting the energy needs of global population growth, and maintaining a prosperous, just and fair society that does not hinder developing nations. While the United Nations did not name any specific discipline, geoscience is a red thread that runs through their Sustainability Goals and has an essential role to play in delivering on these commitments.

How Geoscience will Help us to Decarbonize

Major strides have already been made in some countries to decarbonize the electricity sector with renewable sources superseding coal. There has been a drive toward hybrid and battery power replacing petrol and diesel vehicles. Doing so leads to an increased demand for a suite of raw materials (e.g. minerals and rare earth elements) for the batteries to store the energy. There is a similar need for them in the construction of the solar panels and wind turbines in power generation. Yet more are required for smartphones and other applications. Given that demand cannot be met through existing operations or recycling of materials currently in circulation, there is a need to identify new sources of critical elements, metals and minerals. Some estimates suggest that the need for metals like lithium will lead to a five- to ten-fold increase in production. The intensity of operations will mean extraction issues will have to be addressed if sustainable mining is achievable.

  • The different sources of black, grey, blue and green hydrogen. (Graphic credit: BP).

Parts of the energy sector like heavy industry, other forms of surface transportation, heating, cooling and aviation are far harder to decarbonize than electricity. The need to decarbonize industrial hubs is especially acute and requires the capture of emissions, transportation and their sequestration in safe and secure sites. Sedimentary basins represent obvious storage opportunities through the use of depleted oil and gas fields and saline aquifers in which fluids are trapped and transported. Inert, long-chained hydrocarbons have very different properties to carbon dioxide and the highly corrosive carbonic acid that results from its reaction with water. There is a need to test subsurface storage sites, since poor choices would undermine confidence and may lead to a promising technology not being adopted. Use of technical methods and the data acquired, processed and interpreted in the pursuit of oil and gas (e.g. seismic reflection, petrophysics, core description and pressure data etc.) are the same needed to characterize and monitor the carbon stores, meaning expertise gained in petroleum studies are well-aligned with the energy transition.

Hydrogen is being touted as an alternative fuel for domestic gas supplies and surface transportation. While some demonstrators are testing whether hydrogen can be blended into gas networks, others seek to replace the whole grid. Hydrogen is also being trialled in buses and trains as an alternative to petrol and diesel (e.g. in Aberdeen).

Historically, hydrogen needs have been met from coal or methane sources, known as Black and Grey Hydrogen respectively with their carbon emissions vented or flared. While the aspiration is to use electrolyzers to convert the electricity from wind farms to hydrogen (Green Hydrogen), the process is in its infancy and does involve putting energy in to get hydrogen out, meaning it is less efficient. Given those challenges, the transitional step being proposed is to obtain hydrogen through steam reformation of methane, which also leads to a carbon dioxide by-product (Blue Hydrogen).

Blue Hydrogen requires a close spatial association between a gas field, a safe carbon store, a hydrogen export route and hydrogen storage site, an interdependency that demands a critical evaluation of the subsurface. Blue Hydrogen as a transition fuel also underlines the continued role for indigenous gas, because local sources have a lower carbon footprint than imports and they ensure the security of supply. The absence of fields containing hydrogen suggests that its storage in porous media remains unproven. Use is currently made of man-made salt caverns to hermetically seal hydrogen. More geological stores may be needed to avoid a requirement to construct high-pressure gas cylinders at scale, but if the right sites are to be chosen, appropriate salt lithologies need to be detected.

  • Professor John Underhill with PhD students in the 3D Audio-Visualisation Centre at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. © Heriot Watt University.

Geothermal heat is another obvious renewable energy source. To date, efforts have concentrated on areas with higher geothermal gradients (e.g. the granites of Cornwall or volcanic areas in places like Iceland). As they are often sited in remote locations, heat loss during transportation is commonly an issue. This means an alternative ground-source for heat is required to serve large conurbations blighted by high unemployment, deprivation and fuel poverty. Since many urban areas were industrial and manufacturing centers located near coal mines, their trellised network of shafts may be a source of warm water and may provide an immediate source of low-enthalpy distinct to the needs of the stressed communities.

Existential Threat or Opportunity?

Given the critical role that geoscience will play in a low-carbon future, one would think that there would be an upsurge in interest and an appetite to undertake academic degree programs in the subject. However, all the data and evidence point to student numbers for Geology and Geophysics degrees and vocational applied Masters programs experiencing a sharp decline. In some instances, such as those in Petroleum Geoscience and Mining Geology, recruitment is at an all-time low, implying that students are finding geoscience a far less attractive career option.

One issue is the negative perception that a career in geosciences aligns with ‘dirty’ exploitation and extractive industries that have presented us with the global carbon problem. A second element is the demise in access, resulting from Geology being dropped from the school curriculum, making it harder for students to be introduced to, or further their interest in the natural world. Another factor is arguably a collective failure to paint the picture that shows the important role geoscience has in creating the solutions that tackle and reduce emissions. 

Finally, the push for student numbers in recent years has led to an over-supply of graduates leading many to drift away from geoscience. Unless we tackle these issues, demonstrate the subject’s contribution to a low-carbon future and communicate its importance effectively, a career pathway in geoscience may remain unappealing. 

Efforts are underway on both sides of the Atlantic to raise awareness of geoscience and the role it plays in securing a low-carbon future. In the US, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has sought to address undergraduate geoscience education. Publication of its recent report, entitled the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education, highlighted three major tasks. It outlined the key concepts, skills, and competencies that are needed for success in graduate school and their use in the future workforce; sought to identify the best teaching practices and most effective use of technology to enhance student learning; and investigated how to recruit, retain, and ensure the success of a diverse and inclusive community of geoscience graduates and teachers to contribute to a well-informed public and dynamic geoscience workforce.

In the UK, the Geological Society of London (GSL) have similarly been examining the issues and sought to articulate geoscience’s place in addressing the key global challenges. Their work shows how the role and career pathway of the geoscientist maps on to the UN Sustainability Goals, describing career pathways that contribute to making the energy transition a reality. 

A number of universities have been reviewing their undergraduate and vocational Masters (MSc) programs to see if they are fit for purpose. There is now an increasing awareness of the need to blend traditional strengths in classroom, lab-based and fieldwork with new technologies like virtual reality and novel teaching practices, something that has been an unforeseen benefit of Covid-19 and the drive for online learning in the absence of residential opportunities.

A new appreciation of the key issues associated with the energy transition and net zero have led to a change in teaching and learning content and methods to assess, accurately image, characterize, parameterize and quantify the subsurface. Where courses have been found wanting or student numbers have declined to unsustainable levels, universities are revamping them. Most notably, this has led some institutions to drop petroleum-related courses from their portfolio and others to re-evaluate what constitutes the essential component parts of their courses.

Ph.D. training and research has been particularly proactive in the Energy Transition with the launch of a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in 2019. Entitled GeoNetZero (GNZ), it constitutes a Heriot-Watt-led partnership of 12 UK universities, who deliver world-class research and training that addresses geoscience and its role in the low-carbon energy transition and challenge to meet net zero emission targets. As well as undertaking Ph.D. research projects across the net zero landscape, they also receive a 20-week, GSL-accredited, industry-supported training program that enables students to appreciate the wider context of their individual projects and helps build their industry and academic networks. 

The CDT’s purpose is to build the next generation of geoscientist practitioners equipped to meet the challenges of the energy transition and to engage and work with communities to find meaningful solutions.

Geoscience’s Pivotal Role

  • Mapping Geoscience onto the UN Sustainability Goals. (Published with permission from and acknowledging copyright © of The Geological Society of London).

Given our dependency on carbon and the requirement to wean ourselves off it, there is a need to ensure the Earth is in safe hands and skilled practitioners oversee the energy transition as we move to a decarbonized future. In order to do so, we need to be willing and able to make the case for geoscience, demonstrate its relevance and thereby, attract and retain a pipeline of talent. The direction of travel is clear and steps are being taken to address the current issues in geoscience training and research. The key to delivery and re-birth of geology as a valued discipline will be to show that what we do should not be characterized simply as a contributor to the climate problem, but that it has a pivotal role in society and is super-crucial in finding low-carbon solutions for the energy transition. 

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