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Durham University

Department of Earth Sciences


Research could boost UK’s energy potential.

(5 November 2018)

Durham University research that led to the discovery of new energy supplies in the UK has been shortlisted for a 2018 NERC Impact Award.

A team of researchers led by Professor Bob Holdsworth, Department of Earth Sciences, is shortlisted in the ‘Economic Impact’ category for uncovering the potential of a new type of oil reserve off the west coast of Shetland and the development of a spin-off company, boosting the industry in Scotland.

Like much of the world’s finest science, Professor Holdsworth’s research was curiosity-driven. As a passionate geologist, he noticed an unexplained sediment in geological cores taken many years ago from the Rona Ridge off the coast of Shetland, and his persistence to investigate led to the discovery of petroleum deposits stored in fractures in bedrock under the sea.

Bob Holdsworth

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UK energy mix

Subsequent NERC funding facilitated the team’s work with industry to research technologies to extract these resources, as well as the creation of a spin-out company, Geospatial Research, to explore the potential for these new reserves to be used as part of the UK energy mix. Next year, oil company Hurricane will establish the first basement oil field close to infrastructure already used for traditional oil extraction.

Professor Holdsworth said: “I am extremely pleased to have been shortlisted for this NERC Impact Award as a result of this work.

“We need to move towards more sustainable energy sources as quickly as possible, but in the meantime we need to ensure that we have a secure energy supply as part of a broader energy mix. Access to new reserves such as these could reduce pressure on exploration for hydrocarbons in other environments, such as the Arctic.

“Ultimately, our discoveries and its application could ensure the UK has secure strategic energy reserves as we work towards a cleaner, sustainable and more environmentally-friendly future.”

Energy technologies

The NERC Impact Awards recognise research that has delivered significant benefits to the UK economy or society in the UK or internationally. Among the benefits from Professor Holdsworth’s research is that the Rona Ridge reserves in fractured bedrock are either found at existing sites or can be extracted using existing infrastructure, minimising further environmental impact. 

The energy technologies developed could also be used on comparable crystalline fractured bedrock elsewhere in the world, and may act as a reservoir for other resources – such as water.

NERC Director of Research and Innovation, Dr Phil Heads, said: “Excellent independent science on the potential and risks of all the UK’s energy options – including renewables and fossil fuels – is vital to support UK decision-making around our energy resources. This innovative geological research by Professor Bob Holdsworth and his team has provided new understanding of the UK’s energy options and delivered significant economic benefits to Scotland.”

Professor Holdsworth’s research team was funded by NERC between 1998 and 2012.

Led by Professor Holdsworth, this was a team application to the NERC Impact Awards, representing the economic benefits generated by the work of Professor Ken McCaffrey, Dr Richard Jones and Dr Jonathan Imber, all based at Durham University, Dr Robert Wilson, BP, Dr Richard Walker, University of Leicester, Dr Jen Pless, Conoco Phillips, Dr Ben Franklin, ENI (UK), Dr Anna Dichiarante, University of Oslo, Dr Janine Sleight and Dr Lee Watts, both from Shell, Dr David Moy, Chevron and Dr Eddie Dempsey, University of Hull.

Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum on Monday 3 December 2018.

For more information about the NERC 2018 Impact Awards please click here.