Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages

Inside one of the strangest and most wonderful places at UT—the Core Research Center.

Want to see something really cool?” James Donnelly’s cowboy boots click on the concrete floor and the sound echoes in the distance as he leads me down a long hallway and through a double door. We pass row upon row of towering shelves, each holding hundreds of neatly stacked cardboard boxes. From one, he gently removes a milky-white translucent column. It’s pure salt, he says, from the Rayburn Dome in Louisiana. “I had some guys out here looking at it recently and I had to warn them not to lick it. Isn’t it gorgeous?”

Even under fluorescent lights, the salt shines with a strange, otherworldly quality—but then so does the entire place. Donnelly is showing me around the Core Research Center, a 92,000-square-foot warehouse at the Pickle Research Campus, eight miles from UT’s main campus.

The center is essentially a giant library of rocks—core from wells drilled as deep as 27,000 feet under the ground—and Donnelly is a bit like its librarian. He and three other staff members work with researchers who travel from across the country to examine core samples. Many are petroleum engineers and geologists trying to confirm whether a particular spot will be a good place to strike oil; others are scientists studying geology and the environment. Recently, the sculptor David Brooks even borrowed a piece of core for an art exhibit at the Visual Arts Center (titled Repositioned Core, it runs Sept. 19-Dec. 6).

The sheer scale of the place is hard to grasp: 500,000 boxes of rocks donated by oil companies from around the world. Together with the Bureau of Economic Geology’s two other facilities in Houston and Midland, the entire collection—by far the largest of its kind in the world—encompasses 2 million boxes and some 2 percent of all the earth ever drilled in Texas. “You can learn almost anything from these samples,” Donnelly says. “It’s like going deep back into history.”

Photos by Anna Donlan. 


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