Category Archives: Economic and applied geology

Electricity from ‘black smokers’

English: Black smoker at a mid-ocean ridge hyd...

Hydrothermal vent at the mid-Atlantic Ridge (credit: Wikipedia)

Occasionally, journals not usually associated with mainstream geosciences publish something startling, but easily missed. Nature of 12 September 2013 alerted me to just such an oddity. It seems that the chemistry of sea-floor hydrothermal vents potentially can generate electrical power (Yamamoto, M. et al. 2013. Generation of electricity and illumination by an environmental fuel cell in deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Angewandte Chemie, online DOI: 10.1002/ange.201302704).

The team from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, the Riken Centre for Sustainable Resource Science and the University of Tokyo used a submersible ROV to suspend a fuel cell based on a platinum cathode and iridium anode in hydrothermal vents that emerge from the Okinawa Trough off southern Japan at a depth of over 1 km. It recorded a tiny, but significant power generation of a few milliwatts.

The fluids issuing from the vents are at over 300°C while seawater is around 4°C, creating a very high thermal gradient. More importantly, the fluid-seawater interface is also a boundary between geochemically very different conditions. The fluids are highly acidic (pH 4.8) compared with the slight alkalinity of seawater, and contain high concentrations of hydrogen and hydrogen sulfide but undetectable oxygen (sea water is slightly oxygenated).

The fuel cell was designed so that iridium in the anode speeds up the oxidation of H2S at the geochemical interface which yields the electrons necessary in electrical currents. The experiment neatly signified its success by lighting up three light-emitting diodes.

Does this herald entirely new means of renewable power generation? Perhaps, if the fuel cell is scaled-up enormously. Yet, the very basis of oxidation and reduction is expressed by the mnemonic OILRIG (Oxidation Is Loss Reduction Is Gain – of electrons) and any potential redox reaction in nature has potential, even plants can be electricity producers. In fact all fuel cells exploit oxidation reactions of one kind or another.

Review of fracking issues

The release and exploitation of natural gas from shales using the unconventional means of in situ hydraulic fracturing – ‘fracking’ – has had plenty of bad press, including some hammering in Earth Pages. Now, what seems to be a balanced academic review has appeared on-line in Science magazine (Vidic, R.D. et al. 2013. Impact of shale gas development on regional water quality. Science, v. 340, DOI: 10.1126/science.1235009). The review focuses on hazards to groundwater resources from a variety of environmental effects, primarily gas migration, contaminant transport through induced and natural fractures, wastewater discharge, and accidental spills.

English: Protests against shale gas drilling i...

Protests against shale gas drilling in Bulgaria (credit: Wikipedia)

Much attention has centred on faulty seals put in place to stop gas escaping from drill targets. Yet fewer than 3% of seals are said to have proved problematic, with some finger-pointing at natural gas leakage from the hydrocarbon-rich shales. After all, there are plenty of natural fractures and completely ‘tight’ stratigraphic sequences are rare. in fact toxic effects of natural gas leakage on surface vegetation have been widely used as exploration indicators for conventional petroleum. The review does point out that there are so few pre-drilling studies of natural leakage that this controversy – including widely publicised blazing household water supplies – can not yet be resolved. Obviously more independent monitoring of areas above prospective shales are essential; but who will fund them? The one well-documented before-and-after study, from 48 water wells in Pennsylvania, USA, showed no change, though it seems that monitoring after fracking was short-lived.

The chemically-charged water used to induce the hydrofracturing obviously leaves an unmistakable mark when leaks occur, and there have been cases of considerable environmental release. The fluids are indeed a wicked brew of acids, organic thickeners, biocides, alkalis and inorganic surfactants, to name but a few infredients. To some extent re-use of such fluids, which are costly, ought to mitigate risks. However, once a shale-gas field is fully developed, large volumes of the fracking fluids remain in the subsurface and may leak into shallow groundwater sources. But what pathways do these fluids follow when they are pumped into shales under very high pressure? The review warns of the lesson of toxic fluid leakage from underground coal mines.

The University of Pittsburgh team who compiled the review usefully outline why shale gas is both profitable and feasible. They deal with what methane does in an environmental chemistry sense. It isn’t a solvent, so carries no other materials such as toxic ions, but its interaction with bacteria creates reducing conditions. A now well-known hazard of subsurface reduction is dissolution of iron hydroxide, naturally an important component of many rocks, that can adsorb a great range of dangerous ions at potentially high concentrations, including those involving arsenic. Reductive dissolution lets such ions loose into natural waters, even at shallow depths. Yet methane is emitted by a host of sources other than hydrocarbon-rich shale: landfill; swamps; other bacterial action; conventional petroleum fields both active and abandoned; and even deep water boreholes themselves. A recent study of groundwater geochemistry in relation to fracking in Arkansas, USA (Warner, N.R. et al. 2013. Geochemical and isotopic variations in shallow groundwater in areas of the Fayetteville shale development, north-central Arkansas. Applied Geochemistry, v. 33, doi/10.1016/j.apgeochem.2013.04.013) does address changes in groundwater chemistry, but not for all the ions cited by the WHO as potential hazards.

Whereas the mechanisms involved in vertical and lateral migration of subsurface fluids are well understood there is little knowledge of natural structural features such as deep jointing, fractures and fault fragmentation that control actual migration from area to area. The use of natural seepage as an exploration guide was largely abandoned when many studies showing apparently high-priority targets proved to be far removed from the actual source of the moving fluids. The most easily investigated route for leakage is the actual ‘plumbing’ that fracking uses. This is held together by cement that high pressures can disrupt before it sets, resulting in leaks. A lot depends on ‘due diligence’ deployed by the contractors, whose regulation can leave a lot to be desired. Vidic and colleagues devote most space to the matter of wastewater and deep formation water, yet make little if any case for routine geochemical monitoring of domestic groundwater supplies in shale-gas fields. Much is directed at the industry itself rather than independent surveys.

Resource snippets

Wasted natural gas

Much attention has centred on fracking shales to release otherwise locked-in gas, while production of liquid petroleum by the same kind of process is also increasing with little publicity, especially in the US. From a purely economic standpoint wells that yield oil and gas from fractured shale might seem to be quite a boon. Well, they probably are, if the gas can be sold. One of the biggest shale-oil targets is the Late Devonian to Early Carboniferous Bakken Shale in the Williston Basin that stretches across 360 thousand km2‑ beneath parts of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana in the US and Saskatchewan in Canada. This shale is the source rock for most of the conventional oil production from the Williston basin since the 1940s. At the start of the 21st century direct production of oil from the Bakken began in North Dakota, unleashing a major drilling boom and a ten-fold increase in land-leases for production. The state is now the second largest US oil producer after Alaska warranting a major feature National Geographic. Trouble is North Dakota is not well served by pipelines of any kind and oil is shipped by rail, much as it was in the early days of the US oil industry.

Flame at PTT (ปตท.) (Map Ta Phut, Rayong, Thai...

Typical natural gas flare with black-carbon plume (credit: Wikipedia)

The natural gas released by fracking is simply wasted, partly by flaring at the wellhead but an unknown volume of pure methane is simply vented to the atmosphere. At rough 25 times the greenhouse warming capacity of CO2 the perverted economics of waste methane is, unsurprisingly, becoming scandalous and increasingly dangerous. Such is the magnitude of shale-gas production in the US the price of natural gas has fallen dramatically so that from the Williston Basin simply carries no profit and therefore has nowhere to go except up in flames or directly to the air. The US Environmental Protection Agency apparently can do little to halt the venting. British onshore source rocks, such as the Upper Jurassic Kimmeridge Shale,  which has a hydrocarbon content up to 70% and is regarded as the most important rock in Europe being the source for much of the petroleum beneath the North Sea and other oil provinces, are likely targets for fracking now the UK government has given the go-ahead in a new ‘dash for gas’. Chances are it may become a dash for onshore shale-oil .

Manganese nodules finally tagged for production

Manganese nodules taken from the bottom of the...

Manganese nodules taken from the bottom of the Pacific. (credit: Wikipedia)

Almost 40 years ago my desk was almost buried under tomes of information about dull black nodules looking like blighted potatoes as I worked on the now abandoned Level-2 Open University course on The Earth’s Physical Resources. Made mainly out of manganese and iron minerals they also contain ore-grade amounts of nickel, copper and cobalt together with other metals. Were they beneath the crust they would be mined eagerly, but such manganese nodules litter vast areas at the surface of the oceans’ abyssal plains. Such was their potential that around half a billion dollars was spent on oceanographic and geochemical surveys to map the richest nodule fields. Part of the attraction at a time when the non-renewable nature of conventional metal deposits was touted as a threat to civilisation as we know it, as in The Limits to Growth, was that the nodules were zoned and clearly growing: they appear to be renewable metal resources.

Mining them is likely to be hugely costly: they will have to be dredged or sucked-up from the deep ocean basins; intricate metallurgical methods are needed to separate and smelt the paying metals and the risks of deep-sea pollution are obvious. As with shale gas, the UK Tory premier David Cameron has leapt onto Lockheed Martin UK’s announcement that it is finally profitable to get at the nodules, in the manner of the proverbial ‘rat up a drainpipe’. Cameron believes that the venture to harvest one of the most metalliferous patches on the east Pacific floor off Mexico may rake the UK’s economic potatoes out of the fire to the tune of US$60 billion over the next 30 years. Lockheed Martin is an appropriate leader in this scramble having designed some of the equipment aboard a ship financed by Howard Hughes, the 50 thousand tonne Glomar Explorer. A curious vessel, the Glomar Explorer was widely publicised in the mid-70s as the flagship for a manganese nodule pilot project. In fact it was built to snaffle a Soviet submarine (K-129) and its contents of codebooks, technical equipment and nuclear missiles that sank to the abyssal plains in the Pacific about 2500 km to the north-west of Hawaii. It did grapple the submarine, some cryptographic equipment, a couple of nuclear tipped torpedoes and six of the dead crew members. It is still operational, but as an ultra-deep water drill rig.

We will have to wait to see if nodule mining is a ‘go-er’, and very little information has emerged about methodology. The target metal is probably nickel with its importance in rechargeable batteries, plus rare-earth metals that are in notoriously short supply. Whether or not raking, dredging or sucking-up the nodules will have insupportable environmental impact depends on the amount of on-board processing; the nodules themselves are pretty much insoluble. Extracting and separating the metals will probably involve some kind of solution chemistry rather than the beneficiation common in most on-shore metal mines. Such hydrometallurgy has considerable potential for pollution, unless the raw nodules are shipped to shoreline facilities, at a hefty cost. One thing occurred to me while writing about manganese nodules as a major resource was that their blends of metals would not match the proportions actually required in commerce. On a grand scale their exploitation could well play havoc with currently booming metal prices and drive on-shore mining to the wall. But, to be frank, I think this is a bit of tropical sea-bed bubble fraught with legal tangles connected with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Geochemistry and economic history

At first reading this item’s title might seem to convey nonsense, yet there is an interesting relationship between these two very different disciplines. It concerns the pillaging of South and Central America by conquistadors who followed Columbus’s pioneering route across the North Atlantic in 1492. Aside from glory their motive was profit, and that was most conveniently concentrated in the form of gold and silver, to be found in abundance among the native people of what came to be known as the Americas. Once such plunder declined silver ores were soon discovered in Peru and Mexico, thereby maintaining the supply. Bullion or plate – so named from the fact that precious metal was most often transported in the form of sheets – was the major cargo of the great treasure ships in the period from 1515 to 1650. It is remembered in such geographic names as the Rio de la Plata separating modern Argentina and Uruguay.

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski shooting "...

Klaus Kinski, well into his role as an insane conquistador, disputes the script with director Werner Herzog while shooting “Aguirre, The Wrath Of God” (credit: Flickr p373)

It might seem that when such a vast amount of loot entered Europe the buying power of silver in particular would have fallen to result in inflation in the price of basic commodities, much as printing paper money may have that result nowadays. Indeed, over those roughly 150 years prices increased by as much as five times. Another factor was a tendency for silver supply to be augmented simply by debasing newly minted currency with other metals. Yet another is that over the same period China adopted silver as a money commodity increasing demand and so spurring exploration and advances in metallurgical extraction from new ores. Furthermore, the entire fabric of economy in Europe began to shift as feudalism began to be supplanted by capitalism at the close of Medieval times. The sheer complexity of competing factors has made the so-called ‘Price Revolution’ of the 16th and 17th centuries a thorny issue for economic historians. This is where geochemists found that they had a ‘shout’ in what Thomas Carlisle dubbed the ‘dismal science’.

Silver ores also contain lead and copper, which inevitably contaminate silver metal extracted from them. Depending on the processes involved in mineralisation the abundances of both metals vary from mine to mine. More tellingly, so do the relative proportions of the different Pb and Cu isotopes, Pb isotopes reflecting the age of the rocks in which ores are found. Inherited by coinage, the isotopes can be used to assess provenance of coins (Desaulty, A.-M. & Albarede, F. 2013. Copper, lead and silver isotopes solve a major economic conundrum of Tudor and early Stuart Europe. Geology, v. 41, p. 135-138), while the dates embossed on coins at the mint potential chart the course of the bullion trade. Desaulty and Albarede show that silver from the vast Potosí mine in modern Bolivia opened by conquistadors barely shows up in British coinage of the period, which is dominated with Mexican isotopic signatures as well as those from European mines. The latter account almost exclusively for the coinage of the late Medieval period. The conclusion is that the huge potential of Potosí served the needs of Spanish entrepreneurs though a trans-Pacific Spanish trade in which Bolivian silver bought goods from China, including gold. Spanish coins, on the other hand, show little of either Bolivian or Mexican silver, suggesting that Spanish world trade may well have used American bullion directly to purchase goods throughout its sphere of influence centred on the Philippines, while Mexican silver engaged in European trade and also found its way into the British economy by way of the slave trade.

Although Desaulty and Albarede claim to have solved a ‘conundrum’ it seems more likely that their revelations will make historians of post-Medieval economics scratch their heads even more.

Global groundwater depth

The single most vital resource for human survival is clean, fresh drinking water. For a large proportion of the world’s population that right is not guaranteed, with harrowing consequences especially for children under 5-years old. Without careful processing surface water can only rarely be assumed fit to drink, especially in areas with dense populations of people, livestock or wildlife. Groundwater, on the other hand, has generally passed through aerated upper soil layers before it ended up below the water table in an aquifer. In that passage it is filtered and subject to various oxidising processes, both chemical and organic, that renders it a great deal more free of pathogens than standing or running surface water. Remarkably, a common mineral in any oxidised soil horizon is goethite, an iron hydroxide, which is capable of adsorbing a variety of potentially damaging ions.  So, of all fresh water that stored beneath the surface is the safest for people to drink.

By its very nature groundwater is hidden and requires both geological exploration and the drilling or digging of wells before it can become a resource. Areas underlain by simple stratiform sediments or lava flows present far less of a challenge than do geological settings with complex structures or that are dominated by ancient crystalline basement rocks. Time and again, however, crises in water supply arise from drought or sudden displacements of  populations a great deal faster than the pace of groundwater exploration or development needed to cope with shortages. Were the potential for subsurface supplies known beforehand relief would be both quicker and more effective than it is at present.

Image of simulated depth to water table for Africa (Courtesy of Y. Fan, Rutgers University, USA)

Image of simulated depth to water table for Africa (Courtesy of Y. Fan, Rutgers University, USA)

Thanks to three geoscientists from Rutgers University, USA and the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, (Fan, Y et al. 2013. Global patterns of groundwater table depth. Science, v. 339, p. 940-943) a start has been made in quantifying the availability of groundwater worldwide. They have modelled how the likely depth of the water table may vary beneath the inhabited continents. As a first input they digitised over 1.5 million published records of water table depths. Of course, that left huge gaps, even in economically highly developed areas. There is also bias in hydrogeological data towards shallow depths as most human settlements are above easily accessible groundwater.

To fill in the gaps and assess the deeper reaches of groundwater Fan et al. adapted an existing model that assumes groundwater depth to be forced by climate, topography and ultimately by sea-level. It is based on algorithms that predict groundwater flow after its infiltration from the surface. Such an approach leaves out drawdown by human interference and is at a spatial resolution that removes local complexities. The influence of terrain relies on the near-global elevation data acquired by NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) in February 2000, resampled to approximately 1 km spatial resolution, supplemented by the less accurate Japan/US ASTER GDEM produced photogrammetrically from stereo- image pairs. Other input data are assumptions about variation in hydraulic conductivity, which is reduced to a steady decrease with depth, models of infiltration from the surface based on global rainfall and evapotranspiration patterns and those of surface drainage and slopes. No attempt was made to input geological information

The results have been adjusted using actual water-table depths as a means of calibration across climate zones on all inhabited continents. The article itself is not accessible without a Science subscription, but the supplementary materials that detail how the work was done are available to the public, and include remarkably detailed maps of simulated water table depths for all continents except Antarctica.  The detail is much influenced by terrain to create textures that override climate, which might suggests that the results flatter to deceive. Yet the modelling does result in valleys and broad basins of unconsolidated sediment showing shallower depths that tallies with the tendency for less infiltration where slopes are steep and run-off faster. The fact that the degree of fit between model and known hydrogeology is high does suggest that at the regional scale the maps are very useful points of departure for more detailed work that brings in lithological and structural information.

Porphyry deposits and the fracking mechanism

brothers in arms

Porphyry sculpture of two of the four co-emperors of the late Roman Empire – the Tetrarchy (credit: mhobl via Flickr)

For about a century a style of mineral deposit that develops in and around shallow, silicic magma chambers has dominated world supplies of copper, molybdenum and, more rarely, tin. They are also enriched in other valuable elements, including gold and silver, which makes these deposits even more attractive to mine. Hosting them are fine-grained diorites and granodiorites that typically contain large crystals of quartz and feldspar set in the finer material. Technically such rocks are called porphyries; well not so technical because the name derives from many porphyries having a colour much valued by Egyptian and especially Roman  sculptors and architects – a reddish purple close to that on the hem of an nobleman’s toga. The dye comes from the ‘purple’ fish – the marine mollusc Murex brandaris – which the ancient Greeks referred to as porphura. In Rome, ‘The Purple’ were the nobs, and today they are the cardinals. The connection is coincidental, the best and most enduring rocks for sculpting and making pyramids are of this kind, but happen to be purple. Of course, there are igneous rocks with the eponymous texture but different colours, but stonemasons in the ancient world never bothered to give them a special name

The porphyritic texture signifies to virtually every geologist a magmatic history in which an igneous magma resided deep in the crust slowly crystallizing large mineral grains. Then, for one reason or another, it was blurted towards the surface. Porphyry copper and molybdenum deposits have a disturbingly phallic shape; a tall, rough cylinder capped by a bell-shaped zone of mineralisation. And they are pretty big, the largest at Bingham Canyon in Utah, USA once having been ~2.5 km tall and 0.5 km wide, with a 2 km, bell-shaped zone of mineralisation affecting the intrusion and its surrounding country rock.

Bingham Canyon Mine

The world’s largest open-pit mine in the porphyry copper deposit at Bingham Canyon Utah (credit: Wikipedia)

Porphyry ores are not much for the rock aficionado to shout about and they are characterized by very low grades of ore, the metal-sulfide ore minerals and any gold being barely visible. They are economic because there is a great deal of rock with copper and molybdenum contents often less than 0.5%, and economic gold values less than a part per million (0.03 troy oz t-1). The bulk and the diversity of metals make mining porphyry deposits profitable. The ore minerals occur in tiny cracks that pervade the deposits forming a ‘stockwork’. That is where this style of mineralisation has a link with fracking shales to release their gas content. Stockworks are produced by very high-pressure steam that explosively fractures every cubic metre of the orebody. Crystallisation of sulfides and barren minerals keeps the fractures open until the system runs out of steam and mineralising fluids. Modelling of the thermodynamics associated with porphyry intrusions now suggests that once pressure and temperature stabilise at the requisite levels the hydraulic fracturing becomes self-sustaining (Weis, P. et al. 2012. Porphyry-copper ore shells form at stable pressure-temperature fronts within dynamic fluid plumes. Science, v. 338, p. 1613-1616). The key is the ‘fracking’ and as ‘shells’ with the right conditions migrate through the upper part of the intrusive system groundwater is drawn in to the freshly permeable rock to dissolve, transport and, where chemical conditions permit, to precipitate metals in the cracks. The modelling suggests a fundamental process that extends from plutonic systems, through volcanic edifices, hydrothermal processes in shallower rocks and active geothermal systems that vent to the surface.

Stockwork in copper-molybdenum porphyry deposit in Mexico (credit: Sundance Minerals)

Stockwork in copper-molybdenum porphyry deposit in Mexico (credit: Sundance Minerals)

In many respects the universality of hydraulic fracturing associated with increased heat flow, which itself can affect the crust repeatedly, may be the key to the concept of ‘metallogenic provinces’. These are large areas in which economic mineralisation of many styles but with much the same ‘blend’ of metals seems to have formed again and again during crustal evolution. Such provinces emerged from exploration and mining to present explorationists with the old adage, ‘To find an elephant go to elephant country’. Now there may be a theoretical basis on which new discoveries may be made.

Fracking leaks

Cameron speaking in 2010.

David Cameron speaks (credit: Wikipedia)

The start of 2013 saw a massive puff from the British government for development of shale gas, Premier David Cameron crying ‘Britain must be at the heart of the shale gas revolution’. Fearful of the rapidly growing shift from Britain’s natural-gas self reliance to dependence on the Gulf, Russia and Norway the Conservative-Liberal  Democrat coalition gave the green light for ‘frack drilling’ to restart. This followed a pause following seismicity in the Blackpool area that attended Cuadrilla’s exploratory drilling into the gas-rich Carboniferous Bowland Shale thereabouts. There is also a nice sweetener for the new industry in the form of tax breaks.

English: Boris Johnson holding a model red dou...

Boris Johnson holds a model London red bus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

London Mayor Boris Johnson, a possible contender for Tory leadership, seems pleased. And perhaps he should be, as the Lib-Con coalition will be tested because the junior partners depend electorally, to some extent, on ‘green’ credentials. The Lib-Dem Energy Minister, Ed Davey, seemingly favours an automatic halt to drilling should there be seismicity greater than 0.5 on the Richter scale; an energy level less than experienced every day in London from its Underground trains. Political commentators have forecast that green issues may exacerbate tensions within the coalition in the second half of its scheduled 5-year term, especially as the electorate seems set to reduce the Liberal Democrat partners to irrelevance in future elections.

Natural gas’s biggest ‘green’ plus is that being a hydrocarbon its burning releases considerably less CO2 than does its coal energy equivalent, the hydrogen content becoming water vapour. Yet the dominant gas is methane, which has a far larger greenhouse effect than the CO2 released by its burning. To avoid that presenting increased atmospheric warming, extracting natural gas needs to avoid leakage. Unfortunately for those bawling lustily about the economic potential of fracking source rocks such as the Bowland Shale, recent aerial surveys over US gas fields will come as a major shock. At the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in early December 2012 methane emissions from two large gas fields in the western US were released (Tollefson, J. 2013. Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas. Nature, v. 493, p. 12). They amount to 9% of total production, which would more than offset the climatic ‘benefit’ of using natural gas as a coal alternative.

A shift from coal to natural gas-fuelled power generation would slow down climatic warming, if leakage is kept below the modest level of 3.2% of production. So if the latest measurements are an unavoidable norm for gas fields then natural gas burning in fact increases global warming. Even more telling is that, until the shale ‘fracking revolution’, gas was produced by drilling into permeable reservoir rocks capped by a seal rock – usually a shale. The gas would not have leaked except from the well itself. Fracking, by design, increases the permeability of what would otherwise be a seal rock – hydrocarbon-rich shale – over a large area.

English: Schematic cross-section of the subsur...

Schematic cross-section illustrating types of natural gas deposits (credit: Wikipedia)

Aerial analyses to check emissions over oil and gas fields, let alone over shale-gas operations, are not widespread. However, the technology is not new. Where emissions are strictly enforced in populated areas, as over oil terminals and refineries, overflights to sample the air have been routine for several decades. Little mention is made of such precautionary measures in the promotion of fracking.

Another point is that as well as often being far from habitations, US shale-gas operations are generally into simple stratigraphy and structure. The Lower Carboniferous Bowland Shale now being touted as fuel for Britain’s escape from a descent into economic depression, with its estimated 200 trillion cubic feet of as potential, is intensely faulted and broadly folded, having experienced the Variscan orogeny at the end of the Palaeozoic Era. The complexity and pervasiveness of this brittle deformation is amply shown by geological maps of former coalfields that incorporate subsurface information from mine workings. The Bowland Shale lies below the Upper Carboniferous Coal Measures, many of the likely targets for fracking have never been subject to intensive underground mining simply because the Coal Measures were eroded away tens of million years ago. Consequently the degree to which many fracking targets may be riven by surface-breaking faults and fracture zones is not and possibly never will be known in the detail needed to assess widespread methane leakage.

Sometime in early 2013, the British Geological Survey is set to release estimates of the Bowland Shale gas reserves, in which its detailed mapping archives will have played the major role. That report will bear detailed scrutiny as regards the degree to which it also assesses potential leakage.

Groundwater in Africa

English: Mwamanongu Village water source, Tanz...

Drinking water for many rural Africans often comes from open holes dug in the sand of dry riverbeds, and it is invariably contaminated. (Bob Metcalf on Wikipedia)

Sub-surface water supplies have rarely, if ever, figured in Earth Pages except in passing or in relation to the on-going crisis of arsenic pollution in drinking-water supplies. That is largely because of the paucity of groundwater publications that have a general interest. So it was welcome news to learn that hydrogeologists of the British Geological Survey and University College London have produced a continent-wide review of groundwater prospects for Africa, probably in most need of good news about water supplies (MacDonald, A.M. et al. 2012. Quantitative maps of groundwater in Africa. Environmental Research Letters, v. 7 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/2/024009. They used existing hydrogeological maps, publications and other publically available data to estimate total groundwater storage in a variety of aquifer types and the yield potentials of boreholes. Details can be seen at

Dominated by the vast sedimentary aquifers of Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan, such as the Nubian Sandstone, around 0.66 million km3 may lie below the continental surface: more than 100 times the annually renewable freshwater resources, including the flows in  three of the world’s largest rivers, the Nile, Congo and Niger. Though only a fraction of this subsurface potential may be available for extraction through wells, the arithmetic, or rather the statistics, suggest that small diameter boreholes and simple handpumps, as well as traditional wells, can sustainably satisfy the drinking water needs of the bulk of Africa’s rural populations with yields of individual wells between 0.1 to 1 l s-1. However, groundwater use in irrigation and for large urban supplies demands well productivities an order of magnitude higher from thick sedimentary sequences, which rarely coincide in Africa with areas suitable for large-scale agriculture or existing cities and large towns. Both the humid tropical lowlands with thick unconsolidated sediments and the deep sedimentary rock aquifers beneath the Sahara and other arid areas match great groundwater potential with either little need for groundwater or virtually no potential for agricultural development and very few people. Moreover, the truly vast reserves of North Africa that are an order of magnitude or more greater than in any other countries are at such depths and so remote that development needs commensurately huge investment, in the manner of oil-rich Libya’s Great Man Made River Project projected at more than US$25 billion investment. To say that reserves, convenience and yields are inequitably distributed in Africa would understate the hydrogeological difficulties of the continent.

Average well productivity predicted by MacDonald et al from Africa’s regional geology

Much of Africa has crystalline basement at the surface that has useful yields (>0.1  l s-1) only when deeply weathered, and even then rarely yields better than 1 l s1. An exception to this general rule is where basement has been shattered by large faults and fractures. Sedimentary cover is generally thin across the continent and with highly variable yield potential. The other issue is that of sustainability, for if extraction rates exceed those of recharge then groundwater effectively becomes a non-renewable resource. About half of the African surface, mainly in its western equatorial region, has sufficient rainfall and infiltration potential to outpace universally high evapotranspiration to give recharge rates of more than 2.5 cm of annual rainfall. For all the areas repeatedly hit by drought and famine, average recharge through the surface that escapes being literally blown away on the wind is less than half a centimetre.

To have synopses of all the important issues surrounding African groundwater – the best choice for safe domestic supplies in hot, poor areas – would seem to be very useful to those engaged in development and relief strategies; i.e. to governments, the UN ‘family’ and World Bank. But there are important caveats. An obvious one is the antiquity of many of the surveys drawn on by MacDonald et al. Some 23 out of 33 were published more than 20 years ago using data that may be a great deal older: such has been the snail-like pace of publication by all geological surveys, including BGS. That is compounded by the small scale of the maps (mainly smaller than 1:1 million) and the extremely sparse geophysical data concerning subsurface geology across most of Africa. ‘Quantitative’ is not the adjective to use here, for unlike in most of the developed world, groundwater reserves and locations in Africa have not been measured, but estimated from pretty meagre data. In fact to be brutally realistic, most of the source maps are based on educated guesswork by a few hard-pressed geoscientists once personally responsible for areas that would cripple most of their colleagues working in say Europe or North America.

If there is a truism about water exploration in Africa, outside the well-watered parts, it is this: sink a well at random, and it will probably be dry. The stats may well be encouraging, as MacDonald et al. clearly believe, but finding useful groundwater supplies relies on a great deal more. Outside cities, people survive as regards groundwater often as a result of traditional means of water exploration and well digging: they or at least some locals are experts at locating shallow sources. Yet to improve their access to decent water in the face of both rising populations and climate change demands sophisticated exploration techniques based on geological knowledge. Most important is to ensure supplies to existing communities, whose locations do not necessarily match deeper groundwater availability, bearing in mind that a universal problem for most African villagers is the sheer distance to wells with safe water. Rigs used to drill tube wells are expensive to hire, so the likelihood of success needs to be maximised. In the absence of large-scale (1:50 000) geological maps – rarities throughout Africa – only skilled hydrogeological interpretation of aerial or satellite images followed-up by geophysical ground traverses offer that vital confidence.

Geologically useful ASTER image of the Danakil Block in Eritrea/Ethiopia, showing Mesozoic and Recent sedimentary aquifers and crystalline basement (Steve Drury)

In fact, thanks to the joint US-Japan ASTER system carried in sun-synchronous orbit, geologically-oriented image data are available for the whole continent. Interpretation requires some skills but few if any beyond learning in a practical, field setting. Indeed, the African surface in its arid to semi-arid parts, most at risk of drought and famine, lends itself to rapid hydrogeological reconnaissance mapping using ASTER data. Given on-line training in image interpretation, a ‘crowd-source’ approach coordinating many interpreters could complete a truly life-giving and easily available map base for local people to focus their own well-construction programmes.

Britain to be comprehensively fracked?

Tower for drilling horizontally into the Marce...

Drill rig in Pennsylvania aimed at hydraulic fracturing of the hydrocarbon-rich Marcellus Shale of Devonian age. Image via Wikipedia

In ‘Fracking’ shale and US ‘peak gas’ (EPN of 1 July 2010) I drew attention to the relief being offered to dwindling US self-sufficiency in natural gas by new drilling and subsurface rock-fracturing technologies that opens access to extremely ‘tight’ carbonaceous shale and the gas it contains. The item also hinted at the down-side of shale-gas. The ‘fracking’ industry has grown at an alarming rate in the USA, now supplying more than 20% of US demand for gas. This side of the Atlantic the once vast reserves of North Sea gas fields are approaching exhaustion. This is at a time when commitments to reducing carbon emissions dramatically depend to a large extent on hydrocarbon gas supplanting coal to generate electricity, releasing much lower CO2  by burning hydrogen-rich gases such as methane (CH4) than by using coal that contains mainly carbon. Without alternative, indigenous supplies declining gas reserves in Western Europe also seem likely to enforce dependency on piped gas from Russia or shipment of liquefied petroleum gas from those major oil fields that produce it. The scene has been set in Europe in general and Britain in particular for a massive round of exploration aimed at alternative gas sources beneath dry land. Unlike the US and Canada, the British are not accustomed to on-shore drilling rigs, seismic exploration and production platforms, and nor are most Europeans. Least welcome are the potential environmental and social hazards that have been associated with the US fracking industry, which seem a greater threat in more densely populated Europe.

The offshore oil and gas of the North Sea fields formed by a process of slow geothermal heating of solid hydrocarbons or kerogen in source rocks at a variety of stratigraphic levels, escape into surrounding rocks of the gases and liquids produced by this maturation, and their eventual migration and accumulation in geological traps. By no means all products of maturation leave shale source rocks because of their very low permeability. That residue may be much more voluminous than petroleum liquids and gases in conventional reservoir rocks; hence the attraction of fracking carbonaceous shales. British on-shore geology is bulging with them, particularly Devonian and Carboniferous lacustrine mudstones, Carboniferous and Jurassic coals, and the marine black shales of the Jurassic (see and, to the extent that areas of potential fracking cover around a third of England, Wales and southern Scotland.

News is breaking of a major shale-gas discovery beneath Blackpool, the seaside resort ‘noted for fresh air and fun, where Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom went with Young Albert their son…’ (Albert poked a stick at Wallace the lion and was eaten), said by energy firm Cuadrilla to have gas reserves of 5.7 trillion m3. The announcement followed 6 months of exploratory drilling, and drew attention to the burgeoning interest by entrepreneurs in the upcoming 14th Onshore Licensing Round for petroleum exploration in Britain. It isn’t just from major petroleum companies, but in some cases even what amount to family businesses finding sufficient venture capital to spud wells; similar in many respects to the US fracking boom that began a mere 10 years ago.

Hi-tech future may be saved by ocean floor sediments

Global rare earth element production (1 kt=106...

China's growing REE market share. Image via Wikipedia

Since the now far-off founding of the Club of Rome and the re-emergence of Malthusian ideology, time and again there have been warnings about the imminent running out of resources that are essential for modern life. The latest concern one of the formerly haunted wings of the Periodic Table, central to petrogenetic geochemistry, but little else; the rare-earth elements. From early beginnings as the source for phosphors in the screens of colour televisions all 15 REEs now have a growing commercial role in applications ranging from precision guided weapons, night-vision goggles and stealth technology in the military sphere, through the satiation of artificial appetites for electronic gaming and mobile phones, to applications of super-efficient magnets in medial scanners and ‘green’ power generation. The crisis being discussed currently is not so much a shortage – REEs are not so rare – but the cornering of their mining by the Peoples’ Republic of China, which produces more than 95%  of RREs used at present (~120 thousand tons). Yet world reserves are estimated at almost 100 million t, of which China has 36 million. Mining is often in only a few known, high-grade deposits; for instance most of the US reserves of 13 million t are locked in the Mountain Pass Mine, California that is currently on a ‘care-and-maintenance’ regime, i.e. shut. This one-sided economy sends shudders through capital’s strategy forums, i.e. in the US, Silicon Valley and the Pentagon.

Not surprisingly, geochemists and oceanographers from Japan, the world’s most hi-tech country, have bent their collective will to finding alternative sources, and may have revealed one in an unexpected location (Kato, Y. et al. 2011. Deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean as a potential resource for rare-earth elements. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 535-539).  Their work stems from ‘mining’ existing geochemical data from deep-sea drilling projects on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, that reveal a wide range of REE concentrations in the ooze coating the seabed: from <250 to >2000 parts per million. The richest pickings seem to lie in a swath either side of the East Pacific Rise at around 15°S, where the group estimate that a 1 km2 plot could yield about one fifth of current world annual production, even though REE concentrations lie way below their on-shore economic cut-off grade. Apart from the need for dredging at depths around 3-5 km on the abyssal plains, and the inevitability of destroying a largely unknown ecosystem, the positive aspect of these metal-rich oozes is that the REE can be extracted simply by acid leaching of the goethite (FeOOH) in which the bulk of the elements reside. Goethite is something of a geochemical ‘mop’ with a capacity for adsorbing elements of all kinds on grain surfaces; so much so that it is being considered as a means of cleaning up heavy-metal pollution. Both the REEs and the iron probably arise from seabed hot springs where oxidising conditions result in dissolved ferrous iron combining in ferric form with oxygen to form goethite, which in turn scavenges other dissolved ions. Many of the on-shore REE deposits are carbonatites (intrusions of carbonate-rich magmas) that contain fluoro-carbonates and phosphates that host the REE, or beach sands in which wave swash concentrates the durable heavy phosphates in so-called black-sand deposits. Carbonatites are rare, most occurring in ancient ‘shields’, as in southern Africa, Canada and China, but being so unusual are not difficult to find.  One in the Canadian Shield known as the Big Spruce Lake deposit provides phosphorus- and potassium-rich soil that encourages the growth f conifers and so creates a geobotanical anomaly of large trees where local climate generally supports only stunted ones.

The rising demand and currently restricted supply of REEs is creating an exploration boom for carbonatites as the metal prices rise inexorably. Yet it may also produce a shift to what seems to be an alternative kind of source; iron-rich deep-sea sediments, though more likely those preserved on-shore in ophiolite complexes than at the huge depths of the abyssal plains. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that oceanographers and geochemists have pointed to untold metal riches before: manganese nodules that litter huge tracts of the seabed and contain sufficient copper, nickel and cobalt to maintain supplies for millennia. Despite a half-billion dollar investment in the 1960s and 70s, there is no nodule-dredging industry. There are however well-advanced plans for deep water mining of gold-rich hydrothermal sites, but miners will go just about anywhere to gloat over Marx’s ‘money commodity’