The University of Sheffield
Department of Civil and Structural Engineering
Civil Modules

Current Module Sheet

The information contained within this module sheet is subject to change at any time.

CIV6748 Postgraduate Module

Pollutant fate and transport in the subsurface

Credits: 15

Semester : Spring

Pre-requisities : None

Year offered: 2017-18

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Prof. Steven Thornton

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Module Description:

Groundwater constitutes the major accessible source of fresh-water on earth.  Risk of pollution for groundwater is posed by agricultural and industrial activities, drainage of urban water, and disposal of contaminants and solid waste on land. This course provides a survey of the geological, hydrological, hydrogeological and biogeochemical factors controlling the movement and the fate of contaminants in the subsurface. 


This course focuses on the processes governing the transport of contaminants  in the subsurface, an environment typically characterized by large rock-water interfaces, low-flow energy, and low-oxygen availability. Understanding these processes is crucial to assess groundwater contamination and evaluate the need to resort to cleanup measures. The course provides a general overview of sources and types of pollutants, and the mechanisms that govern their transport and fate in the subsurface, such as advection, dispersion, diffusion, sorption, decay and biodegradation. The main focus is on groundwater flow and solute transport mechanisms, rather than chemical and biological processes. However, consideration is given to the coupling that occurs between flow, solute transport and biogeochemical processes that influence the behaviour and fate of organic and inorganic contaminants in the subsurface. In addition, sections on urban groundwater, fate and transport in the unsaturated zone, and examples of investigation and assessment of contamination at real-world sites are included in the programme.

Learning Outcomes:

[1] Demonstrate an understanding of the hydrogeology of drift and shallow aquifers, in addition to their existing understanding of basic hydrogeology.

[2] Identify potential and actual industrial sources of groundwater pollution and their characteristics.

[3] Demonstrate knowledge of the major groundwater pollutant groups and calculate basic partitioning relationships.

[4] Demonstrate a conceptual understanding of the behaviour of non-aqueous phase liquids (NAPLs) in the subsurface.

[5] Carry out calculations on groundwater flow, advective transport, sorption and biodegradation processes; understand and use analytical solutions for solute transport.

[6] Design an investigation for an industrial or urban pollution problem including use of conceptual site models.

[7] Calculate basic solute flow and transport rates in unsaturated media.

[8] Demonstrate skills in reporting and presentation of project work.


Coursework assignment for weeks 4-6. Using a case study, students interpret contaminant fate and transport processes in an aquifer, developing a conceptual site model and recommendations for further monitoring and assessment for long-term management. A written report is required by week 6. Invigilated, unseen exam on last day of course in week 7.

Please note, these assessments may be subject to change.






Individual Coursework, this includes lab reports, designs etc (LO2,LO4,LO5,LO6,LO8) 50
Written Exam Invigilated (LO1,LO2,LO3,LO4,LO7) 50 2
Spring Exam Period
Spring Results Day

Assessment Preparation:

In "Individual coursework" students undertake an assessment of a contaminated site and develop recommendations for future management. This coursework will provide students experience in critically analyzing complex results at different scales and synthesis of data from different sources, as may be found in a typical contaminant fate and transport study. A final written report is required, which aims at assessing students' writing and reporting skills. A final comprehensive invigilated exam is assigned to test student knowledge and problem-solving abilities.

Exam Preparation Folder


Formative feedback is given verbally throughout the intensive part of the course, and during tutorials at other times. The intensive course is a mixture of lectures with exercises.

Teaching Methods :

Lectures will consist of presentations from the course instructor and - occasionally - industry practitioners to develop basic understanding and general knowledge of the course topics. Reading will be assigned for each lecture. This reading will not necessarily duplicate the lecture material, and students will be responsible for knowing both the lecture and extra reading. Some lectures will be devoted to class-based exercises and tutorials, in which the instructors will interact with students in the solution of a series of practical problems, or in the discussion and evaluation of case studies.

The students will be assigned independent coursework which builds upon knowledge and skills learnt during the lectures and practical exercises delivered in the module. A range of data and information sources are provided from a contaminated site investigation. The available information will be used to define the site assessment procedures that have been used in the investigation, identify further characterisation and monitoring requirements, and explain contaminant behaviour at the site as part of a management strategy.

During the last week of the course, students will take a final comprehensive exam to test their overall understanding of qualitative and quantitative solute transport.

Please note, these are the approximate hours spent on each teaching activity.




Lectures 24
Tutorials Practical Classes 3
Coursework Demonstrate concepts, theory and methods and develop key skills 60
Independent Study(including Prep for Assessment) Private Study including non invigilated assessment 63

Outline of Syllabus:

1. Advanced hydrogeology
    - Hydrogeology of drift and shallow aquifers
    - Overview of risk assessment concepts
    - Flow, velocity, flux and mass discharge
2. Groundwater pollution
    - Characteristics and sources of groundwater pollution
    - Pollutant properties
    - Characteristics of NAPLs
    - Movement of NAPLs and dissolution of pollutants
    - Development of pollution plumes
    - Basic fate and transport of pollutants
3. Solute transport
    - Advection, dispersion, diffusion, sorption and biodegradation
    - Mathematical representation of solute transport
    - Mathematics of reactions and quantitative analysis
4. Investigating groundwater pollution
    - Conceptual site models
    - Investigation techniques
    - Site investigation case studies
5. Unsaturated zone
    - Head, pressure and flow in the unsaturated zone
    - Unsaturated zone transport

Health & Safety:


Recommended Reading:

(Click to see)

[1] RecommendedG.F. Pinder and M.A. Celia, 

Subsurface Hydrogeology. 
John Wiley and Sons, 2006. 

[2] RecommendedF.W. Schwartz and H. Zhang: 
Fundamentals of Groundwater. 
John Wiley and Sons, New York.
ISBN 0-471-13785-5, 2003, 583 pages. 

[3] RecommendedC.W. Fetter,
Contaminant Hydrogeology,
Second Edition. Prentice Hall, 2008.