Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels currently provide nearly 80% of the world’s primary energy, and – like it or not – their contribution looks set to increase in absolute if not relative terms for many decades. Given their importance, the future of fossil fuels is of enormous economic, geo-political and environmental importance. Will supply be able to meet rising demand?  Will continuing improvements in technology prevent costs rising as unconventional and increasingly remote resources come into play? What new technologies could reduce the energy consumption and environmental impact of the petroleum and petrochemical industries? Will the shale oil and gas revolution make the USA energy independent?  Will this revolution be replicated elsewhere, possibly resulting in cost decreases that would undermine shifts to nuclear and renewable energy? How will markets respond as sources of supply wax and wane, and demand continues to shift to the developing world?

Research in Oxford

Close up shot of a bucket of coal
Fossil fuels currently provide nearly 80% of the world’s primary energy

Oxford researchers are working on upstream geological, engineering and ecological issues and downstream chemical issues, while the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (which in early 2103 was rated the second best Energy and Environment Policy Think Tank in the world by the University of Pennsylvania) has unrivalled expertise in the analysis of oil and gas markets.



Research on Fossil Fuels in the Department of Earth Sciences is primarily concerned with unconventional and conventional petroleum exploration. This research is structured in two major themes: (1) the origin and distribution in time and space of petroleum source rocks and unconventional (shale gas) reservoirs, and (2) the physical processes governing petroleum migration and entrapment. Modern geochemical methods are deployed to reconstruct palaeoclimates and palaeoceanographic conditions at the times that source rocks (organic rich sedimentary units) were deposited, and various factors controlling enrichment of preserved organic matter can then be isolated and ranked to aid petroleum exploration.

Research into petroleum migration is primarily tackled through advanced seismic imaging techniques. Oil and Gas can be imaged directly in the subsurface using reflection seismology, and the migration pathways can be analysed by interpreting high resolution three-dimensional seismic surveys acquired and processed by the petroleum industry, and loaned for academic research purposes. The newly built Shell Geoscience Laboratory is equipped specifically for the interpretation of such data. More widely, seismic data are also underpinning current research into depositional and deformational processes operative in many sedimentary basins, and indirectly this research also contributes to enhanced methods for petroleum exploration.

Engineering issues

Research in the Department of Engineering Science is focused on the design of fixed and floating offshore structures for oil and gas applications as well as the design of offshore pipelines. Work in fluid mechanics tackles the assessment of loading on offshore structures, particularly from extreme events, such as rogue waves, but also from more regular loading events. The Department’s geotechnical engineers are interested in all aspects of offshore foundation design, and have contributed to the development of design guidance for a wide range of applications. These include for mobile drilling units, for fixed structures and for floating structures, including deep foundations and shallow foundations. Recent work on offshore pipelines has included the development of mathematical models of soil-structure interaction that can be used for pipeline design, with applications including surface pipelines, buried pipelines as well as risers.

The Invensys University Technology Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, also in the Department of Engineering Science, has collaborated with industry on a range of measurement-related problems for over 15 years. The current focus is on Coriolis mass flow metering, one of the most accurate and widely used measurement techniques for metering valuable fluids such as hydrocarbons. The UTC has developed new Coriolis metering technology enabling mixtures of liquid and gas to be measured accurately, and this has been adopted widely within a range of industries. Current applications in the hydrocarbon sector include three-phase (oil/water/gas) metering for upstream well testing, two-phase CO2 for Enhanced Oil Recovery, and metering of marine fuel where entrained air leads to significant measurement errors.

Environmental impacts

Oxford zoologists are world leaders in the mapping and assessment of biodiversity in terrestrial and marine areas, using a variety of GIS, satellite and web-based technologies.  This research is being used to inform the choice of drilling sites in potential oil and gas fields. They also have expertise in the assessment of human impacts on marine ecosystems, both coastal and deep-sea – see also marine energy.

The Biodiversity Institute has expertise in mapping patterns of biodiversity in terrestrial environments.  We have worked closely with the oil and gas industry, especially Statoil, to develop the web-based Local Ecological Footprinting Tool (LEFT) which allows industry to minimise ecological risks associated with land use decisions.


Refinery of the future

As it emerges from the earth, crude oil comprises  a multitude of hydrocarbons. Liquid fuels for internal combustion engines are produced from thermal and catalytic cracking of this valuable resource.  Research and development in the King Abdulaziz – Oxford Petrochemical Research Centre (KOPRC) is advancing new, innovative science and technologies to enhance the use of renewable energy, increase efficiencies and reduce energy consumption and environmental impact in the modern petroleum and petrochemical industry. KOPRC research and development projects include: Synthetic Fuels from CO2; Clean Combustion from Diesel; Non- Conventional Processing of Crude Oil; New-Generation Catalysts; and Solar Energy and The Refinery of the Future.

Carbon Capture and Storage

Oxford earth scientists are evaluating the suitability of possible CO2 storage sites in shallow aquifers in the North Sea.  With Oxford engineers who have expertise in flows in porous media (as do Oxford mathematicians who have worked on CCS), they are studying the processes that govern leakage of CO2 and ways of detecting leaks.

Oil and Gas Markets

The Oil and the Middle East Programme at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES)  is dedicated to the study of modern-day oil markets, their historical evolution, and their future development. The programme combines a focus on oil market architecture and the interactions of fundamentals and financial forces; the international oil pricing system; industry structure and stakeholders (e.g. national and international oil companies); and the evolution of oil versus other energy markets. It also focuses on the advanced study of  the Middle East and other resource-rich economies, including the long-term management of their energy resources; legal-fiscal frameworks for new upstream investment; and their own increasingly varied energy systems and the diversification of energy sources towards natural gas, nuclear and renewables.

The OIES Natural Gas Research Programme, which has become one of the foremost sources of independent academic research on natural gas, focuses on multiple facets of the natural gas world: economics, politics and sociology, international relations of gas-producing, consuming and transit countries, as well as the environment in its relationship with natural gas. It concentrates on natural gas issues of international significance, but also publishes work with a more regional and national focus. The Programme has produced major regional studies on gas and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) in: Europe, Asia, the former Soviet union countries, the Middle East and North Africa. It has also produced a number of national studies, as well as work on Atlantic Basin LNG, gas pricing (in different parts of the world), market reform and regulatory issues. Key areas of current research include the outlook for regional or national gas demand, including the transport sector, Gas to Liquids, liquefied natural gas supply and costs in the supply chain, market-driven change in the Russian gas supply-demand matrix and pricing dynamics in Europe and Asia (see  OIES Gas Programme).