PhD Profile: Aleksandra Svalova


Aleksandra Svalova PhD Student


Student Name: Aleksandra Svalova

PhD Project Title: Ultrasound spectrometry of the aggregation of asphaltenes during the formation of water-in-oil emulsions

PhD Project Summary: Water-in-oil emulsions (WOE) are highly stable mixtures occurring during crude oil production and spills. Emulsion removal from the water column is problematic due to the high viscosity and stability of WOE. Failure to remove petroleum spills quickly and environmentally-friendly poses significant environmental and industrial hazards. For efficient removal, WOEs require separation into water and oil which is inhibited by the presence of heavy petroleum particles, asphaltenes, at the water/oil contact.

Asphaltenes are the heaviest, most aromatic and polar constituents of crude oil. Asphaltnes aggregate into small clusters, nanoaggregates, that create a `skin’ around water droplets which further stabilses the emulsion. The asphaltene molecules have a wide distribution of molecular shapes and sizes, which makes any modelling extremely difficult. Our research uses ultrasonic velocity characterisation which was shown to be very effective in detecting molecular aggregation. Ultrasonic velocity measurements are advantageous due to their high precision, non-destructive power levels and the ability to probe opaque and solid samples.

Our research focuses on determining the concentration at which asphaltene single molecules start forming nanoaggregates in a model petroleum. This concentration is termed as the critical nanoaggregate concentration (CNAC). We discover evidence for the possibility of a critical nanoaggregation region (CNR) whereby asphaltene molecules aggregate over a concentration range. This is supported by the behaviour of surface-active compounds in solution. We deploy geochemical techniques, such as oxidation, in order to probe the molecular structure of asphaltenes. We deploy statistical analysis to relate asphaltene structural properties and aggregation behaviour. Finally, statistical modelling allows to compare the likelihood of a CNAC versus a CNR in our velocity data.

Supervisors: Abbott, G.D & Nicholas, G.P

List of Publications: 

Svalova A., Parker N.G., Povey M.J.W. and Abbott, G.D. Determination of Asphaltene Critical Nanoaggregate Concentration Region Using Ultrasound Velocity Measurements. Scientific Reports. 2017;7:1-11.

What aspect of studying a PhD at Newcastle University do you enjoy the most?

I really enjoy the friendly research culture and supportive staff. It is the excellent people that surround and inspire me that move my research further.

What advice would you give new PhD student/students considering studding a PhD at Newcastle University?

Newcastle University is an excellent institution to pursue doctoral studies due to a thriving research culture, outstanding facilities and a vibrant social life. The students and staff are very friendly and supportive. There are many opportunities to share your research and participate in seminars, conferences and competitions. The Postgraduate Research Development Programme offers a variety of courses allowing to develop research, admin and self-management skills. Newcastle University has recently seen a succession of large-scale developments, including a multi-million urban sciences, business and research centre Helix, redevelopment of the historical Armstrong Building and the Hatton Gallery and the opening of a new events venue Boiler House. Additionally, the opening of multiple student accommodation sites around Newcastle makes this city very much a home away from home. The local social and cultural scene is what makes Newcastle one of the best student cities in the UK, with a multitude of art venues, bars and clubs. A picturesque coastline is only 30 minutes away from the campus, the stunning Quayside is a 5-minute walk from the city centre down one of Britain’s most beautiful streets and the surrounding areas like Jesmond and Gosforth define class. In short, Newcastle is the place to be

PhD Profile: Kirsten Dutton

Kirsten Dutton PhD Student


Student Name: Kirsten Dutton

PhD Project Title: From sediment to rock: the role of microbes in the early lithification of sabkha sediments

PhD Project Summary: My research focuses on understanding the interactions between mineralisation processes and microbes in modern microbial mats of the Abu Dhabi coastal sabkha, a combined carbonate-evaporite-siliciclastic system. Owing to the extreme aridity and hypersalinity in the environment there is minimal predation and microbes flourish.

Microbial mats are layered biofilms, forming as microbes bind themselves together with substances they secrete called EPS (extracellular polymeric substances). It is within these layered structures and the surrounding sediments mineral processes occur and a number of techniques are being used, including in a laboratory based aquarium experiment, to isolate the causes of these processes. Fossil microbial mats found around the world show that these structures are some of the earliest signs of life on earth. Investigating these early lithification processes can inform our understanding of how these structures are ultimately preserved in the rock record. This project used a number of disciplines: geology, biogeochemistry and geomicrobiology.
Supervisors : Van der Land, C. (Newcastle University), Sherry, A. (Newcastle University) and Head, I.M. (Newcastle University)

List of Publications:

Lokier, S. W., Andrade, L. L., Court, W. M., Dutton, K. E., Head, I. M., Van Der Land, C., Paul, A. & Sherry, A. 2017. A new model for formation of microbial polygons in a coastal sabkha setting. The Depositional Record; 3(2): 201–208.

Paul, A., Lokier, S. W., Court, W. M., Van Der Land, C., Andrade, L. L., Dutton, K. E., & Sherry, A. & Head, I. M. 2018. Erosion-initiated stromatolite formation in a recent hypersaline sabkha setting (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates). Preprint EarthArXiv.

What aspect of studying a PhD at Newcastle University do you enjoy the most?

Doing a PhD at Newcastle University has given me the opportunity to collaborate with brilliant people within the university and establish connections with researchers elsewhere in the world. It has also provided me with opportunities to expand my skills outside of my research through the faculty provided postgraduate researcher development programme (PGRDP) which has workshops on everything from scientific writing to coping with stress in your PhD.

Newcastle is a great city to live in as a student, it is compact, cheap and there is plenty to do in and around the city.

What advice would you give new PhD student/students considering studying a PhD at Newcastle University?

Find new ways to disseminate your research (papers, social media, public outreach etc.), establish a routine early on, stay on top of new research in your field, find a hobby which gives you some rest time away from your work.


PhD Profile: Jack Walker

Jack Walker PhD Student

Student Name: Jack Walker

PhD Project Title: Minimising the risk of UK shale gas exploration through biostratigraphic and geochemical well correlation of the Bowland Shale Formation.

PhD Project Summary: The Pendleian Upper Bowland Shale Formation (UBSF) is a target for UK shale gas extraction. Maximum flooding surfaces – so called ‘marine bands’ – are used as stratigraphic marker beds. These maximum flooding surfaces are mudstones enriched in specific goniatite index fossils, formed during periods of enhanced fossil preservation. As UBSF goniatite fossils are poorly preserved and challenging to identify, organic and inorganic geochemical analyses are used alongside biostratigraphy. However, the exact relationship between marine band geochemistry and basin palaeoceanography is poorly understood.

We present a lateral comparison of sedimentological, palynological, biomarker and elemental data across two cores (from north west UK) and at outcrop (Clitheroe), transecting the palaeobasin.

Supervisors: Van der Land, C. (Newcastle University), Jones, M. (Newcastle University), Vane, C.H.(British Geological Survey), Hough, E.(British Geological Survey) , Hennissen, J.A.I.(British Geological Survey), Wagner, T.(Heriot-Watt University), Barnard, P.(Applied Petroleum Industry), Clarke, H.(Cuadrilla Resources Limited)

What aspect of studying a PhD at Newcastle University do you enjoy the most? 

Practically applying my research to the short and long term benefit of industry and academia through collaboration has been the most enjoyable aspect of studying at Newcastle University.

This project could not have reached full potential if not for the individuals and organisations working with and for Newcastle University. This interdisciplinary collaboration with Newcastle University and their associate connections work together to reach a common goal. That has been the most enjoyable experience during my PhD.

What advice would you give new PhD student/students considering studying a PhD at Newcastle University?

Enjoy it. Never again will you get the opportunity to pursue your own scientific curiosity for so long and with this level of freedom.

My advice would be this: embrace it!


Field visit to one of England’s most valuable wetlands; research into carbon capture and sequestration in peat in response to positive and negative feedbacks


My name is Coleen Murty and I began my PhD with Newcastle University and the British Geological Survey in September 2017. My research aims to increase current understanding of carbon cycling in peatlands and determine whether these large terrestrial carbon sinks can be preserved, protected and even harnessed to store external carbon. In this blog post, I talk about the experience I had while out on a recent field visit to my study site in Cumbria.

Coleen Murty – 1st Year Geosciences PhD Student at Newcastle University

In late February 2018, I was joined by Dr Christopher Vane (British Geological Survey) and Dr Geoff Abbott (Newcastle University) on a field visit to Butterburn Flow, the largest of 58 wetlands which lie on the border between Cumbria and Northumberland. Butterburn is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is considered one of the most valuable mires in England, operating as a substantial carbon sink. We were particularly lucky, as the weather was perfect with clear skies and sunshine, which is a rare occurrence on Butterburn Flow! During our 3 day visit, we took water table measurements and collected peat cores, water samples and moss samples.


Butterburn Flow, a valuable carbon sink and the largest of 58 wetlands which straddle the border between Cumbria and Northumberland.


Peat coring, water sampling and moss sampling

One of the main challenges of the trip was carrying gear and equipment through uneven and boggy ground containing loads of hidden ditches! – Although this provided me with a great opportunity to learn the technicalities of collecting different types of peat cores. We collected a series of 1-2 m peat cores using a combination of Russian coring equipment and polycarbonate tubes. Various cores were taken from 4 different sites across the bog, each containing a water level datalogger used to monitor changes in the water table overtime. Water data and air pressure can be downloaded onto an android device and correlated with peat cores taken nearby. Changes in the water table can have positive or negative impacts on a peatlands ability to accumulate carbon and therefore must be carefully monitored. The collected peat cores will be used for a combination of geomolecular and bulk geochemical analyses: from bulk density measurements used to estimate carbon stocks, to a series of laboratory mesocosm experiments by which peat cores will be placed in a ‘microenvironment’ where natural field conditions will be mimicked in order to monitor the changing chemistry of the cores in different conditions and assess their ability to sequester carbon.

Two ‘push’ peat cores collected in polycarbonate tubing. Peat height ~1 metre.

A variety of water samples were collected from: the water level wells, the river which runs across the northern section of the site, and Sphagnum-dominated bog pools. Different Sphagnum moss species were also collected for species identification and chemical characterization. The nature and abundance of carbon within the bog and river water running off the peatland will give insights into the source, stability and fate of different organic molecules being flushed through the peat profile and how their mobility affects the resilience and vulnerability of the carbon being retained within the wetland. Sphagnum moss is the dominant peat-forming species across the Northern peatlands. It thrives in wet, acidic conditions and its high recalcitrance allows it to store large amounts of carbon compared to other peatland plants. Characterizing the water extractable, solvent-extractable and macromolecular chemistry of Sphagnum moss will improve current knowledge regarding its role in carbon cycling within peatland ecosystems.

Peatlands are complex systems where carbon accumulation rates exceed decomposition rates, however this balance of carbon uptake and loss may be shifted by periods of intense drought which are becoming more common in the light of climate change. Finding solutions to protect and preserve carbon stocks locked up in peat is essential as we move towards a more sustainable future.

Bog pool with an abundance of Sphagnum cuspidatum growing at the water surface

Levelogger well containing water monitoring equipment which records alterations in the water table (four of which are deployed across the site)

Undergraduate Field Trip to Force Crag


At the start of  February, undergraduate Earth Sciences and Environmental Sciences students threw on their woolly hats and high vis vests and travelled to the Lake District to assess the treatment of metal contaminated water, drained from the area surrounding the disused mine at Force Crag.


Students on route to the Force Crag field site

Disused mine at Force Crag, Lake District


The mine site has an active bioremediation scheme for metal contamination. Water drained from the mine site, which is high in zinc enters two artificial vertical flow ponds, containing sulphur reducing bacteria which immobilize zinc from the water through bacterial sulphate reduction. Students were asked to test the pH, Eh, conductivity and alkalinity of water entering the bioremediation scheme and water leaving the bioremediation scheme.


Students testing the alkalinity of water entering the bioremediation scheme

Students armed with water testing kits downstream of the two artificial vertical flow ponds

Students also got the opportunity to test the zinc content of water entering and leaving the bioremediation scheme using zinc testing field kits. The zinc content of water was inferred based on the colour produced by mixing a 20ml water sample with two chemical reagents.  When mixed with the two  reagents, water which has a high concentration of zinc produces a purple-blue solution. Whereas, water which has a low concentration of zinc produces a red-orange solution.


Water samples analysed in the field using zinc testing kits. On the left is a sample collected from water entering the bioremediation scheme which has a high zinc content and on the right is a sample collected from water leaving the bioremediation scheme which has a low zinc content

Once back at Newcastle University, students will use the data collected during this field trip in a computer practical class, where the statistical software package Minitab will be used along with ANOVA to analyse the data.

This field trip is just once example of the range of field trips undertaken by undergraduate Earth Sciences and Environmental Sciences students studying at Newcastle University.

Stay tuned to the Geosciences Group blog for updates on future fieldwork conducted by Newcastle University Geosciences undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Greetings fellow Geoscientists!

Hello and welcome to the new blog for the Newcastle University Geosciences Research Group!

This blog will keep you up to date with the latest geosciences news and activities from across the university.

AND allow you to get to know some of the group’s staff and students (and more importantly what interesting research projects they are working on!).

Stay tuned for monthly updates on events, conferences and fieldwork, along with featured posts covering topics such as “What does it take to be a Geosciences PhD Student?” and “Life aboard a Research Vessel”.