We can relive geological events in the laboratory.
Journeying back through space and time, using materials such as sand, clay and silicone, enables us to reproduce in the laboratory the complex events that led to the creation of the massive geological structures that are the focus of our exploration. Marco Meda, structural geologist with Eni Exploration, explains a technology with its roots in the 19th century and a future in the integration of analogue models and computer-simulated ones: the sandbox.
Investigating the geological structures of the subsurface by analysing the geometry and geological evolution is a fundamental stage in the search for hydrocarbons. Often, however, the available data is insufficient to fully understand the problem and we must resort to conceptual models in frontier areas or very complex geological situations.
During our 15-year collaboration with the University of Parma, Eni has developed technologies and methodologies to apply the best sandbox techniques to oil exploration.
The sandbox is a technology more than two centuries old. Analogue models were already in use in the 19th century to simulate the evolution of faults and folds.
Eni has contributed to the construction of two sandbox apparatuses, equipped to simulate erosion, sedimentation and deformation. In recent years, test explorations have been performed in areas from West Africa to the Far East and the Barents Sea to the Mediterranean.
The equipment can also be put to wider use – as has recently been done in the Val D'Agri, where we simulated the deformation of the Southern Apennines. Current research is moving towards the integration of analogue and computer-simulated models and is becoming increasingly sophisticated. But that is for the future. Until then we will continue to use sand, clay and silicone to simulate the rocks that we explore.