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The potential impacts on UK air quality of unconventional hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Prof Ally Lewis (WACL, University of York), Ruth Purvis (WACL, University of York) , Dr Jim Hopkins (WACL, University of York)

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The UK government believes that shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, economic growth and jobs. It is encouraging some initial exploratory extraction to determine the potential reserves and ease of operation in UK conditions alongside developing additional regulation. This type of gas production has never taken place in the UK before.  The impacts of unconventional hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on air quality in the UK are uncertain; experiences in the US are unlikely to be reproduced in the UK due a more robust regulatory environment, different atmospheric conditions and at least initially a much smaller scale of extraction. Nonetheless some additional emissions of methane and other pollutants from both the extraction process and subsequent supply-chain, are likely to occur.  This PhD will draw on existing observations of air quality in two locations currently identified for fracking and for which licenses have been awarded. One of these locations is in Kirby Misperton, North Yorkshire, close to the university, and this acts as a focal point for research in this PhD,

The PhD will use a combination of existing observations of baseline conditions in candidate fracking locations, alongside new measurements, to determine a current air quality climatology for North Yorkshire and Lancashire and against which future changes in conditions can be evaluated. The PhD will evaluate a climatology for species including ozone (O3), nitrogen oxides (NOx), Particulate matter (PM), methane (CH4) and carbons dioxide (CO2) and non-methane hydrocarbons. Changes to existing hydrocarbon extraction practices will be observed, and assessment made of the scale of emissions and the subsequent impact of these on the local and regional atmosphere. Should fracking commence at either licensed location (likely in 2017) then the atmospheric impacts of this technology will be directly quantified.  The student will work closely with engineering consultancy Ricardo to assess the emissions and determine how these might be best represented in the national reporting of greenhouse gases and air pollutant emissions. The PhD is CASE supported by Ricardo.


This is a collaborative project where the student will work with a range of scientists from the University of York, University of Manchester and British Geological Survey.  The student will take the research lead on the development of new knowledge of atmospheric impacts from fracking processes. This will be within a larger DECC-sponsored research project determining a range of potential environmental effects, for example on ground water, soil gas, radon, ground movement and seismicity

  1. To establish a typical background annual climatology of short and long-lived trace gases and particles in rural areas of North Yorkshire and Lancashire as a baseline condition against which future fracking impacts can be evaluated.
  2. To establish the current key sources of air pollutants to the UK background atmosphere including the existing emissions from active conventional oil and gas extraction activities.
  3. To develop improved analytical methods for the measurement of trace non-hydrocarbon compounds in the rural atmosphere, including possible sensor approaches, and identify key tracers of emissions from different sectors including gas extraction, road transport and agriculture.
  4. To develop robust sampling and detection methods that be applied for assessment of emissions and contribute to the development of evidence informed policy and regulation of emissions from fracking. 
  5. To improve the representation of oil and gas emissions within inventories and national reporting tools such as the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory.

Potential for high impact outcome       

This project is a unique opportunity to lead cutting edge research into the emissions from the some of the first UK fracking sites within the UK.  These form some of the first measurements of their kind and we anticipate the science generated to be of great interest to many parties including local organisations and including councils and local environmental groups through to the oil and gas industry, and government departments such as BEIS and DEFRA. The collaboration with Ricardo is to support the rapid translation of the science into policy, through changes and improvements to the national reporting of emissions.

Some of our recent examples of high impact science related to oil and gas emissions and pollution emissions from other sectors can be found at:

D. Helmig, S Rossabi, J Hueber, P Tans, S Montzka, K Masarie, K Thoning, C Plass-Duelme, A.C Lewis, L.J Carpenter, S Punjabi, S Reimann, M. Vollmer, R Steinbrecher, J Hannigan, L Emmons, E Mahieu, B Franco, D Smale & A Pozzer. A Reversal of global atmospheric ethane and propane trends largely due to US oil and gas production, Nature Geoscience. 9, 490-495, 2016.

A.C Lewis and Edwards P.M. Validate personal air pollution sensors. Nature, 535, 29-31, 2016.

A.R Vaughan, J.D Lee, P.K Misztal, S Metzger, M.D Shaw, A.C Lewis, R.M Purvis, D.C Carslaw, A.H Goldstein, C.N Hewitt, B Davison, S.D Beevers, & T.G Karl. Spatially resolved flux measurements of NOx from London suggest significantly higher emissions than predicted by inventories. Faraday Discussions. 189, 455- 473, 2016.


The student will work under the supervision of Dr Ruth Purvis, Prof Ally Lewis and Dr James Hopkins at the Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories, part of the University of York’s Department of Chemistry, and NERCs Lantional centre for Atmospheric Science. The studentship is offered as part of the SPHERES Doctoral Training Programme that will provide training in addition to that offered by the department. Through both the departmental and SPHERES training, there are a wide range of training activities, including courses aimed at specific science objectives, at improving your transferable skills and putting your work into a wider scientific context.

Dr Purvis and Dr Hopkins will provide comprehensive training in the technical aspects of the instrumentation used and the data analysis, whilst Prof Lewis will support areas of research including sampling and analytical strategies, and policy engagement.

Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories

The student will work in the Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories (WACL), part of the department of Chemistry, University of York. These were established in 2013 and comprise a state of the art 800 m2 dedicated research building, the first of its kind in the UK. Supported by a large award from the Wolfson Foundation and a private donor, the Laboratories enable experimental and theoretical studies relating to the science of local and global air pollution, stratospheric ozone depletion and climate change. The Laboratories offer access to state of the art facilities for atmospheric science, including analysis labs, workshops, prototyping facilities, high performance computation and data analysis. WACL provides an environment with exceptional scientific and technical support for PhDs including full-time experimental officers, instrument design, data and fieldwork specialists. The Laboratories are operated as collaborative venture between the University of York and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), co-locating around 45 researchers from seven academic groups and from NCAS. The Laboratories are a vibrant home to independent research fellows, postdoctoral researchers, PhD students and final year undergraduate research projects.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Chemistry
  • Engineering
  • Physics