New Geologic Materials Center Opens In Anchorage

David LaPain. (Photo by Anne Hillman, KSKA - Anchorage)
David LaPain. (Photo by Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage)

The State has a new library – for rocks. The new Geologic Materials Center opened in Anchorage Wednesday in what used to be the old Sam’s Club. The facility is aimed at giving industry members, academics and the public access to the wealth of data kept in core samples from around the state.

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More than a hundred people milled about a white concrete room, pouring over conveyor-like roller tables holding boxes of rocks. Some of the cylindrical core samples showed cross sections of rough sediment. Others were a smooth grey.

“Do you feel how gritty that is?” asked Jim Carson from Canrig Drilling Technology. “That’s sandstone.”

(Photo by Anne Hillman, KSKA - Anchorage)
(Photo by Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage)

He offered an impromptu lesson on oil reservoir geology. “So that’s the sand with the oil. And some of this stuff, I know it sounds gross, if you go smell that dark looking stuff,” he said while pointing to a deep black core sample, “you’ll smell oil. There’s actually oil in there.”

Around the room guests furtively dipped their noses to the samples. Carson said the new facility is nothing like the old center in Eagle River.

“To actually see it in this setting now, compared to a dark Conex out in Eagle River with a flashlight, is a huge step forward. This is a world class facility here in Alaska, and we should be very proud of it.”

The state spent $24.5 million and two years to buy and renovate the old warehouse store. They originally planned to spend 9 years and nearly $45 million to build a completely new facility.

Dave LaPain, a geologist with the Department of Natural Resources who heads the Energy Section, said the core collection is an invaluable resource for oil and gas developers in the state because it can help them make predictive models without spending millions on drilling new wells.
“A facility like this, I think, is an economic engine for the state. Because as the bigger companies tend to leave the state and the smaller companies tend to come in the state [and have fewer resources for exploration], whatever we can do to help them to have a leg up and help them learn the geology of the basin they’re exploring in, we should do.”

(Photo by Anne Hillman, KSKA - Anchorage)
(Photo by Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage)

GMC Curator Ken Papp said the center is like a library of more than 100,000 boxes of rocks where companies and individuals can check out cores and even take new, small samples from them.

“So it’s kind of a back and forth between promoting science and the knowledge of the rocks we have here and yet keeping things accessible and preserved for future generations to learn about.”

Some students started learning about the rocks during the opening ceremony.

Eighth graders from Clark Middle School streamed down the endless rows of towering orange shelves. Some, like Emmanuel Nansen, stopped into the private sample viewing rooms. He peered at beige rock cores wondering how to extract gold from them. He couldn’t see the point of studying lava.

“What do you make out of it?” he said looking at an array of tan and black rocks.

Despite his skepticism, Nansen and his classmate Brandon Sperry say the rocks piqued their interest.
“Do you guys think you’ll do geology, be involved with rocks when you’re older?” I asked.

“Yeah. Probably,” said Nansen.

“50% chance,” said Sperry.

Most of the center’s samples will stay in Eagle River until the end of winter when it’s cheaper to move them. The new center is large enough to almost quadruple the size of the collection through donations. They can also store permafrost and lake sediment samples in the same freezers and refrigerators that used to hold ice cream and bacon.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne