Talks

Eni in one word: geology

 By Michela Bellettato

A compass, a hammer and a 10x magnifying glass. These are the first and fundamental tools that are given to the aspiring geologist, eager to discover the secrets of the earth. Seductive – from the Alps to the Pyrenees, from the Himalayas to the Andes, the earth reveals ancient fossil landscapes. Exuberant – it breathes in Yellowstone and pours its glowing heart into the Pacific, forming entire islands including Hawaii

Turbulent – its surface shakes to adjust to the internal movements that pull the continental rafts upon which we exist. Romantic – it produces shiny amethyst crystals and neat strands of gold. Generous – it offers up offers up reserves of salt and hydrocarbons. It is hard not to be fascinated by the clues that tell the 4.6-billion-year history of the earth, and which not only help us to understand the present but also to predict how it might change in future. Past, present, future… it’s all a matter of time. But how much? Well, enough to transform exotic coral reefs and sandbanks into icy peaks like the Marmolada and the Tofane range in northern Italy, perhaps interspersed with the Monti Monzoni, which as young and active volcanoes spilled their molten contents onto the cliffs or into the deep seas that surrounded them. Perhaps that sounds incredible and hard to imagine now, but this is the power of 230 million years! Dinosaurs conquered the earth more or less around that time, inhabiting it until 66 million years ago, while evidence of the first hominids dates back to about 2.5 million years ago. So humans and T-Rex never came face to face – except in Jurassic Park.

Everything changes…

All today’s landscapes can be thought of as the result of a succession of phases that lasted hundreds of millions of years and are still in progress, even if everything seems to us to be standing still. Lithogenesis is the moment when rocks form: sand, silt, and limestone shells of marine organisms are deposited, while volcanic activity – both eruptions and confined to magma chambers – produces basalts and granites. The next phase is the formation of the mountains over a long and complex process of clashes between large continental blocks. Then, in a process called orogenesis, these rocks are raised, inclined and deformed. Morphogenesis then shapes the landscape. Erosion by water, wind and ice, frost and landslides sculpt and level the surface, resulting in the beautiful forms to which nature has accustomed us. Geologists wander among these forms, observe, measure and reconstruct what happened millions of years ago. They see beautiful fossil ammonites trapped amid layers of the Alpine belt and imagine the time and the environment in which they lived.


In Val Vigezzo, they sample entire outcrops of oceanic crust formed by the closure of the Ligurian-Piedmontese Ocean 130 million years ago. On Monte Calvario, they find sequences of underwater landslides dating back more than 20 million years. So they travel, take everything in and interpret what they see… but also what they don’t see. The principle that subterranean waves behave differently depending on their level of depth falls under seismology, one of the many disciplines of geology.
Using this principle, geologists can reconstruct three-dimensional models of deep-lying formations and work back to ancient deposit environments – not by sitting on the top of a mountain but on chairs at their desks. They are further emancipated by supercomputers capable of processing geophysical data from all over the world to reconstruct models of the subsoil and identify hydrocarbon deposits.  These tools are help with exploration and for real-time production monitoring, overseen with skill and dedication by people like Giuseppe Valenti, Head of Eni’s Geology and Geophysics Department.

One of the energy's faces: Giuseppe

People like him bring together the efficiency of these powerful data processors that can generate reconstructions of massive rock formations holding precious resources, with the information that only a grain of sand or a drop of oil can hold.
Technological innovation also helps laboratories to work out the age, evolution, and chemical and physical properties of entire geological systems from tiny samples of rocks and fluids. That’s why even the modern geologist, albeit armed with petaflops of computing power and x-rays, will always have with their compass, hammer and magnifying glass with them to collect those first few key bits of evidence. And so the research continues…

READ MORE: Eni in one word: digitalization by Ginevra Mancinelli


about the author
Michela Bellettato
Geologist, from atoms to stars through the Earth