Adam Vonk is a sedimentary geologist who is just about to finish his PhD at the University of Waikato to take up a new position as a petroleum geologist in Perth, Australia.

In his work, Adam has been principally concerned with the search for hydrocarbons (for oil exploration) and to see how rocks exposed at the surface can give us information about rocks below the surface (in the subsurface) that might contain oil or gas.

By studying what people have found out previously about the geology of a particular area, Adam first conducts field studies where he describes and collects the rocks that are exposed at the surface and then makes maps of where they are exposed.

From this, Adam develops a storyline of how these rocks were formed and how the area is likely to look beneath the surface. This helps him to identify places where there are rocks that might contain oil. Adam produces maps from this information that provide guidance and information for other scientists.

Adam’s area of study is the Taranaki region in the North Island of New Zealand, which was first explored for oil resources as early as the late 1890s.

Through the rapid development of technology, the ways to identify rocks that contain hydrocarbons (oil and gas) have become more and more accurate. In early days, people first explored where oil seeped out at the surface. Now, scientists often look in particular for porous rocks (rocks that contain small holes to hold oil and allow oil to seep through) buried deep below the Earth’s surface.

They also get information through two- and three-dimensional seismic reflection data, which allows them to trace how waves travel through the rocks (similar to earthquake waves). These waves change speed and reflect (bounce back) at the contact between different rock types. This provides clues to the geology below the surface.

One of the questions Adam came across very early in his career was “How it is possible that you can find shell fossils at the top of a hill?”. The formation of rocks is often a complex process, but put simply, shell fossils that are found on the top of a hill have been uplifted out of the sea, where they originally formed, because seashells usually form in the sea. It’s this sort of logic that a geologist like Adam uses when he is trying to work out the geological history of the rocks he is studying.

A key question that Adam asks himself is “How old are these rocks?”. To solve this problem, Adam uses fossils of relatively large shells (macrofauna) and relatively small shells (microfauna) that are usually the size of a grain of sand. The shells we see on beaches, seas and oceans today are only a small fraction of all the shells that have ever lived in the waters around New Zealand, and they have evolved over time, often over millions of years, into many different species. By looking at the different species of shells that are found within the rocks, Adam can work out the relative age of the rocks. The process of using fossils to work out the age of rocks is called ‘biostratigraphy

Fossils also help Adam work out what sort of environment a rock was formed in. For example, if Adam finds a rock that contains sand and shells that are usually found on modern day beaches, then it is likely that rock was deposited on an ancient beach. The use of fossils for working out the environment a rock was deposited in is called ‘paleoecology’. This technique also allows geologists to work out what the climate and sea level was like in the past.

In light of the debates around climate change, Adam thinks that, in the future, people will change how they use oil. New projects will look at ways that oil can be used without the damaging impact on the environment it has had in the past. Oil has been a product of great importance to humanity, and apart from fuelling transportation and electricity production, it is being used to produce everyday products like plastic, pantyhose, lipstick, false teeth, shoe polish, pharmaceuticals like aspirin, as well as hearing aids and heart valves.

Adam thinks that there is much future in this field of science.

    Published 10 June 2008