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Studying the forces in rock

The PGP was among the initial 13 Norwegian Centres of Excellence (SFF) established. After ten years, its activities as an SFF centre are now drawing to a close.

Fundamental geological processes

“Our objective has not been to solve a mystery, but to generate deeper understanding of very fundamental geological processes,” says Professor of Geology Bjørn Jamtveit, Director of the PGP.

Geologists have traditionally described the state of geosystems as they currently are, or were in earlier times. Activities at the PGP, however, are designed to describe how geosystems change. With adequate knowledge, experts can describe geological processes quantitatively, which opens up the possibility of predicting a geosystem’s future development. This makes results more relevant for use in energy and environmental research.

Photo: Bård Gudim Our objective has not been to solve a mystery, but to generate deeper understanding of very fundamental geological processes, says Professor of Geology Bjørn Jamtveit, Director of the PGP. (Photo: Bård Gudim) Keep it simple

The starting point for research are the patterns one observes in natural geology. Geosystems are often complex; their patterns can be formed by many transformations over millions of years. In order to lay the foundation for genuine inter-disciplinary cooperation, the PGP has selected very consciously from the myriad possible issues to study.

“We’ve chosen problems that are sufficiently clear-cut to actually study and solve,” explains Professor Jamtveit. “The objective has been to understand the forces at work in rock formations and the effects of these forces. If a geological problem also involves physicists, it must be straightforward enough to be described and formulated mathematically.”

Innovative approach

“The PGP has gained world recognition in its field as an innovative research group. The inter-disciplinary cooperation we have successfully developed here gives the PGP a high international profile – and it is precisely this inter-disciplinary approach that has enhanced our fundamental understanding of the geological processes.”

The centre is at the international forefront of research, as evidenced by not only evaluations but also the steady stream of international students and researchers, and the extent of publication activity. Roughly 400 scientific articles from the PGP have been published internationally, including several in prestigious journals such as Nature and Science.

“We see that we are a popular place to work and we’re happy to able to attract international students and researchers,” says Professor Jamtveit. “Institutions in other countries compete to hire our students – which we feel is a mark of quality.”

Praised in evaluations

The SFF has been evaluated in a number of contexts over the past few years. Time and again, international expert committees have given the PGP their highest recommendation. The Research Council of Norway’s subject-specific evaluations awarded the PGP top scores in both physics and geosciences. In the mid-term evaluation of the Centres of Excellence, the PGP was ranked “exceptionally good”.

The numerous honours bestowed upon PGP employees are another source of pride for Professor Jamtveit, particularly the many young researchers who have successfully competed internationally. In 2012, for example, three PGP researchers reached the final round with their applications for European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants, and two of them were awarded funding.

Professor Jamtveit himself received the Fridtjof Nansen Award for outstanding research in science and medicine in 2010 as well as the Research Council of Norway Award for Outstanding Research 2012 (Møbius Prize). He is also the first Norwegian to be elected a fellow of the Geochemical Society.

Photo: Adriano Mazzini/PGP Geological processes: PGP researchers have carried out fieldwork around the world, including in Svalbard, Russia, the Andes, Java and South Africa. The photo shows fissure and flow patterns in mud near the rim of the Bahar mud volcano in Azerbaijan. (Photo: Adriano Mazzini/PGP)

No ivory tower

The PGP has placed priority on communication and dissemination activities throughout its period as a Centre of Excellence.

“Artists, photographers and even a composer have accompanied us on field expeditions. From the start, PGP employees have helped to organise a dozen art exhibits, authored three popular-science books, and participated in over 200 TV and radio programmes,” cites the professor. The print media have also covered the centre’s work in at least 250 newspaper and journal pieces.

Supplying expertise

In the course of its period as an SFF, the centre has trained 25 Master’s degree students and 21 Ph.D. students, 40 per cent of whom are still working in academia. The expertise developed at the PGP is highly relevant in other sectors as well. Forty per cent of the Master’s and Ph.D. graduates are now positioned in companies conducting petroleum-related activities.

Uncertain future

The University of Oslo will contribute NOK 2 million annually to maintain the value created at the centre. Beyond that, it is not certain whether the PGP will be continued or what its role may be.

A pending collaboration with the petroleum company Statoil will no doubt provide the centre with a financial foundation and strengthen its applied research activities, while the PGP’s focus up to now on basic, curiosity-driven research will become less prominent. 

Physics of Geological Processes (PGP)
  • Objective: to establish a centre for studying the physics of geological processes as a collaborative effort between researchers in geology and physics. The centre will generate new inter-disciplinary insight that readily transfers over to applications and teaching. Another objective has been to develop a new Master’s level programme to give students a background in physics, geology and informatics. 
  • Participants: the University of Oslo’s Department of Physics, Department of Geosciences, and Department of Informatics; guest researchers from Norwegian and international institutions. 
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council: NOK 14 million.
  • Total annual budget: NOK 35-40 million from the petroleum industry, EU/ERC, other programmes at the Research Council, and the University of Oslo. 
  • Total man-years: roughly 40; a total of roughly 60 persons are affiliated with the centre.

http://pgp.uio.no/


 

 

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