Flexible Funding 2023: Professor Sophie Nixon, University of Manchester

Microbiological response to geological CO2 storage

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Key facts about this Flexible Funding research project

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Institution: University of Manchester
Department: Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences
Start date: 1 October 2023
Principal investigator: Professor Sophie Nixon
Co-Investigators: Leanne Walker
Amount awarded by UKCCSRC: £49,950

Why is this research needed?

Secure, permanent geological storage of CO2 is essential to avoid the worst-case consequences of climate change, and is a key component of the UK’s strategy to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050. Target sites for storage include saline aquifers and depleted oil and gas reservoirs. These subsurface environments are known to harbour diverse microbial communities, but their response to CO2 injection and storage – and whether the associated impacts are positive or negative – represents a critical knowledge gap in this strategy. It is therefore essential to characterise these impacts as part of a comprehensive risk management strategy to maximise CO2 storage and minimise leakage.

In collaboration with ExxonMobil, we will characterise the microbial response of CO2 storage by native communities recovered from proposed target formations. As such, we will begin to identify ways in which the deep biosphere may be harnessed to enhance the safe geological storage of CO2, whilst understanding the potential risks posed by native communities and how these may be prevented.

What is this research investigating?

This short project will combine cutting-edge genomic and bioinformatic approaches with cultivation-based experiments to address the following objectives:

(1) Characterise the diversity and metabolic potential of the microbial communities recovered from formation fluids;

(2) define the microbial responses to a high CO2 environment;

(3) identify potential beneficial and problematic microbial activity and their indicators.

What does the research hope to achieve?

Researchers across the UK subsurface science community will benefit from this work. In particular, in characterising the native communities in fluids recovered from target CO2 storage formations, we will be expanding our understanding of the diversity and function of life in the subsurface, which is thought to harbour the unseen majority of microbial life on Earth but remains poorly studied. It is highly likely that we will uncover multiple novel lineages in our baseline characterisations and analysis of our follow-on cultivations, which will additionally add valuable new knowledge to our understanding of the prevalence and potential function of so-called ‘microbial dark matter’. The target formations we will be studying – be they depleted oil reservoirs or saline aquifers – are extreme environments. Understanding the diversity and function of life in these environments sheds light on the limits of life, and can help drive the search for life beyond Earth. Finally, and most importantly, this research will help drive the research base that is needed to underpin the successful delivery of CCS, both in the UK and internationally.

Research outputs

This research is ongoing. Outputs will be shared below as they become available.