Measuring Ancient Rates of Weathered Petroleum Accumulation in the South China Sea

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences


IODP expeditions 367 and 368 are drilling sedimentary successions to basement at locations in the South China Sea. This is to investigate crustal-break up mechanisms during tectonic rifting. Rifting in this way creates a sedimentary basin which is subsequently filled by sediment.

The sediment-fill within the South China Sea is derived from a number of hinterlands in Southern China and neighboring countries in which there are both productive and non-productive petroleum systems. The erosion of formations within these petroleum-bearing hinterlands, and the subsequent transport of the petroleum-bearing sediments to the South China Sea by river, will have lead to the accumulation of trace amounts of petroleum within sediments over geological time.

Measuring residual petroleum is complicated because most of the components of petroleum degrade at the Earth's surface, leaving only the most chemically resistant components behind. Analysis of the organic content of sediment by GC-MS can detect a few of the compound-types present in weathered petroleum, but with increased weathering the amount that can be detected decreases. Eventually only the most asphaltic and heavy petroleum-components remain. This residual petroleum is difficult to analyse, and so for South China Sea samples will be analysed by a new surface enhanced Raman scattering-based method. This method is highly sensitive and capable of detecting sub parts per billion levels of residual petroleum.

The use of newly developed methods for analysing trace amounts of weathered and residual petroleum in this context will greatly help in their trial and development. This development is needed to prepare these technologies for routine environmental base-line monitoring as well as more general petroleum and oil analysis. During this project measurements will be made during shipboard activities using a portable instrument, and then compared to laboratory-based measurements. This comparison of off-shore and laboratory methods is key for developing methods that can be applied at point of need.

From a geoscience and natural science perspective, examining weathered petroleum accumulation over geological time in this way, at a fixed position, has a number of benefits and advantages. One of these is access to a pre-human baseline for petroleum within sediments; e.g. measurements are made on sediments deposited before human exploitation of petroleum began. Another benefit is access to data from the multiple climatic and depositional modes experienced by the site over the it's long geological history. This helps to understand how climate change in the modern era may affect the attenuation of petroleum in the natural environment.

Planned Impact

Amongst non-academic beneficiaries a notable beneficiary within the UK is the energy sector in two contexts: 1) the renewable sector with respect to plant maintenance via oil condition monitoring, 2) Oil and Gas exploration and production.

An application has been made for a university supported Impact, Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation award (IKEC) for trace petroleum and lubricating oil analysis. Skills and expertise in portable assays will be shared with interested companies during this project. Should the IKEC project not be funded, several partner companies have indicated they would still like to take part.
RAB Microfluidics is a start up company whose owner is currently working at the University on a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise fellowship. This company specialises in next generation oil analysis technology and will use the data acquired as a case study to help advertise their analytical capabilities. Knowledge gained from this project will be transferred to this company and its customers

Beneficiaries interested in Petroleum exploration and production applications will be engaged via MSc dissertations run jointly with industrial partners (both for Exploration and Environmental science). Engaging potential end-users in this way does not require additional funds, and is a cost-effective way of communicating new technical capabilities within a context of immediate relevance to potential end-users. This impact activity will outlast the duration of the award.
Description That the formation mechanism for the South China Sea operated differently than previously predicted, based on other ocean frontiers.
Developed sufficent technical capbility to use method for monitoring trace asphaltene, to apply it to monitoring pollution in urban environments.
Exploitation Route Mechanisms for curstal break up and ocean crust formation being used by Total E&P, in concert with Colleagues in France.
Asphaltene detection methods are currently being developed by PhD student during their thesis,
Asphaltene detection methods are currently being adapted for lubricating-oil monitoring KEC
Sectors Energy,Environment

Description Mosses as monitors of urban pollution (surface enhanced Raman analysis of petroleum pollutants)
Amount £54,360 (GBP)
Funding ID RG14955-10 
Organisation Federal University of Petroleum Resource Effurun 
Sector Academic/University
Country Nigeria
Start 10/2018 
End 10/2022