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Podcast: Geo Conversations with Jon Gluyas

Words by Marissa Lo
16 April 2024

Geo Conversations is a podcast series featuring in-depth discussions of topical issues affecting the geosciences.

In this episode of Geo Conversations, Marissa Lo, Assistant Editor, speaks to Professor Jon Gluyas, Chair in Geoenergy, Carbon Capture & Storage at Durham University and the incoming President of the Geological Society of London.

Episode Transcript

[00:10] Marissa Lo: Hello and welcome to Geo Conversations, a podcast by Geoscientist magazine. My name is Marissa Lo, and today I’m joined by Professor Jon Gluyas, who has just taken on the role of President of the Geological Society of London. Jon is the Chair in geoenergy, carbon capture and storage at Durham University. And today we’ll be talking about Jon’s career, his experiences of working with the Society, and what his time as President might hold. So, thanks so much for joining us today, Jon. What first drew you to geology as a subject?

[00:41] Jon Gluyas: You know, it’s kind of weird, the first thing, my first memory of what might be called geology was a friend at school giving me a little piece of galena. It was about 2 cm long and 1 cm each side, so a little off a cube, and the weight fascinated me, as did the metallic lustre. And I’m not sure what the next stage was, but I know I gobbled my way through the Hamlyn little colour guides, one for minerals, rocks and minerals, and the other for fossils. And then the other early memories are going on the Scout away day or away weekend, I think it was two nights camping up in Yorkshire, when we climbed Whernside and looked at the Dent Fault. And I was hooked, completely hooked by then. So, there we go.

[01:28] Marissa Lo: Where did you take your interests from there then?

[01:30] Jon Gluyas: A couple of things: I also recall my father taking me to the local bookshop, and the very learned man in the bookshop said, well, there are only four books on geology, clearly only four books that he could obtain, and I had all but one of them, which was L. Dudley Stamp 1927, on the stratigraphy of Britain. So that was another thing to read. And I used to get one of the teachers at school to teach about half a dozen of my classmates geology for O Level. I’m not sure they were really interested, but I pushed them into saying they were, and from that was desperate to go to university and learn a bit more about the Earth. Just thinking back, the degree of support you would get at school was less than zero. I recall talking to the German master and him saying, “what do you want to do when you leave school, Gluyas?” “I’d like to study geology at university, sir.” To which he replied, “fat chance!”. And that was the sum total of the career advice for school. But I defied that and went on to Sheffield for undergraduate and then Liverpool for a PhD.

[02:39] Marissa Lo: What did you do your PhD on?

[02:41] Jon Gluyas: Big influence as an undergraduate was one of our junior members of staff, who ended up also as a President of the Geological Society, that’s Charles Curtis. And he really introduced me to sedimentary geochemistry. Chemistry is what I could do, I came top in things like that. Geology is what I loved. And he showed me that you could combine the two. And it was him, really. He said, I’ve got this mate at Liverpool and he’s got this great project. I worked on the origin of shale nodule limestone sequences. So, the destruction of organic matter in the shallow sediment and production of minerals, minerals such as carbonates and pyrite. And, you know, a funny twist of fate, last April, my wife and I took an extended holiday, and that included some time in Taiwan and South Korea. And I found myself at a geopark in Taiwan looking at the very same nodules and concretions that I’d worked for my PhD. And when the guide made a bit of an error with his description, I had to join in, which found me lecturing to a group of people on an outcrop in Taiwan. But there we go.

[03:58] Marissa Lo: Tell us a bit about your career after doing your PhD.

[04:02] Jon Gluyas: I was ready to really go to work, rather than be in academia, and applied for everything: coal, applied for minerals jobs and petroleum jobs. And at the time, in the early, very early 1980s, of course, the North Sea had really taken off. And so, I found myself being sent telexes and telegrams to meet with various people in the oil industry. And as a result, I joined BP in Aberdeen in 1981 and spent 15 years or so with BP, working around the world on exploration, but mostly on production, and lived in China and visited Vietnam and lots of places in the Far East, and then lived also in Norway and Venezuela. So, it got me around the world an awful lot. But I sort of realised after 14 or 15 years that I was only ever going to sort out problems. And I really wanted to see if I could create opportunities. And so, I moved from BP, which is still a great company, and moved into the private or the independent sector as it were, with a couple of companies, first Monument and then Lasmo, and after suffering a number of takeovers, Fivers said, you know, if we’re taken over again, we should own the company. And so, we formed Acorn Oil & Gas and became the first company in the UK to go back into a completely abandoned North Sea field and get it going again, something which has become the norm over the last 20 or 30 years. So that was my petroleum career. But I also realised, began to realise in the first decade of the current century that, you know, all the good things which come out of petroleum, there are a couple of things we probably didn’t want, one of those, of course, was the amount of CO2 going in the atmosphere. And so, when Durham approached me with regard to the post you’ve just introduced, it was difficult to say no. I arrived in Durham in 2009. I knew Durham quite well because I’d co-authored a book with someone here and begun to do ever more than when I visited. But it was like opening Pandora’s box. In the petroleum sector, I’d had a few ideas. I’d come across helium as an associated gas. I’d seen how old oil fields produce phenomenal amounts of boiling, co-produced, and unwanted water. And all these things fascinated me. Could you develop geothermal energy? Was there a market for looking for more helium and so on? And once at Durham, of course, you can do anything you like, and then you’ve got to find some money to do it. But it allowed me to start to look at the energy transition and what geoscientists could do with regard to supporting that. And that ultimately led me to leadership of Durham Energy Institute, the mission of which is to help deliver net zero on a local to global scale, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals from the UN. And so that’s really been a massive change in my career, but also a really positive piece for thinking about the way in which geoscience can not only serve society, but serve society without completely wasting the Earth.

[07:30] Marissa Lo: You’ve definitely seen the shift in geoscience then, from how we see the Earth and how we think about resources.

[07:39] Jon Gluyas: Well, indeed, yes. And I think some of that comes as part and parcel as a geoscientist. I don’t know about you, Marissa, but I love the Earth. You know, I love to be able to look at rocks and try and make out what they’re telling you, or landscapes. The Earth is just one hell of a place, and I’d like future generations to enjoy the Earth as much as I have. So, we really need to look after it. And there are ways, clearly, there are ways in which we can make things far more sustainable. We’re very profligate as a species with whatever we do.

[08:20] Marissa Lo: Okay, so from your very varied career, what sort of skills and experiences are you hoping to take forward to your role as President?

[08:28] Jon Gluyas: You know, I could talk about geology here, but it’s appropriate to think about some of the other aspects of a long career, and in particular one which has taken me around the world. So, I’ve had the good fortune to work with lots of different people and lots of different cultures, seen the world from a different perspective than might otherwise have been the case if I stayed in the UK. I’ve worked with phenomenal teams. I’ve also worked with some people I’d prefer not to spend the time of day with. But you learn from these experiences and grow with them. And in many ways, I think one of the things I’ve learned about working with people is: look after those you work with and, on some occasions, help them onto their next role. I think some of those things will play well in terms of helping the Society develop its offering to both Fellows and the greater breadth of society over the next few years or so.

[09:31] Marissa Lo: So, what have been your highlights of working with the Geological Society so far?

[09:36] Jon Gluyas: In terms of working with the Society so far, I’ve been on the Council, of course, since June or thereabouts of last year, but I’ve got form. I served Council back in, I think, 2003 to 2007, and what struck me back then was, you know, if I come back on Council again, I might be able to achieve something second time around. And what struck me this time on coming on as President designate, is just how well the whole team seems to gel together. The innovation which is being generated in terms of the way we interact with our neighbours and more society in general. The openness with which people talk about the challenges. It’s been a bit of a revelation, but we’re no longer that gentleman’s club, which perhaps this and so many other societies were decades ago. It’s really forward looking, and I think the opportunity we’ve got for helping folk beyond the Society understand what the Earth does for them is really positive.

[10:51] Marissa Lo: What do you think the most important challenges are that the Society currently faces?

[10:57] Jon Gluyas: I think the Society faces a number of challenges, but they’re part and parcel of what geoscience as a whole faces. Sometimes I’m not sure we know who we are. We call ourselves geologists or geophysicists, geoscientists, Earth scientists. The number of times, particularly since moving to academia, I’ve been asked, what’s the difference between an Earth scientist and a geoscientist? And I struggle sometimes to give an adequate answer, and yet, society doesn’t recognise really what geoscience and the Earth does for them. You know, if you ask someone, have you got anything from a mine? They may just point to a gold ring and say, well, this will have come out of a gold mine. And yet the reality is, if we don’t grow it, we mine it. And it’s part of our piece to show society just how important the Earth is for them. Without that recognition, I think humans and society will continue (well they probably will anyway), to be profligate with their use of resources. A big challenge for us as geoscientists is to get the message across, not just how important the Earth is, but how much fun you can have learning about it. I mean, take, for example, the recent stories which have come out on the pliosaur, and the great interest which has been shown in the general public on topics like dinosaurs and meteorites and planetary geology and so on – really engaging. Let’s work with that.

[12:30] Marissa Lo: What do you hope to achieve during your presidency?

[12:33] Jon Gluyas: What I hope to achieve during the presidency is around this, reaching out, improving the understanding of geoscience, and as a consequence, really improving the numbers of people who are interested in geoscience and recognise it as a key part of society today. Since moving to Durham, I’ve done quite a few external talks and lectures and demonstrations and so on. And one of the things which has struck me is just, if you get the right note, how engaged people are, and they want to know a great deal more. Some of the biggest critics of when you’re speaking end up being the university of the third age, people have got time to think about the Earth, perhaps, and they’re also great teachers of their youngsters, grandchildren and so on. And so, I think, you know, there’s a great opportunity, whether it’s parliament or government, schools, retired folk, anyone, to learn a bit more about geoscience. And so, what I’d like to see over the next few years as I’m President, is removing some of the mystery from what’s behind that big old solid oak door on the Piccadilly that leads into Burlington House. Let’s show the world what goes on and share it with them.

[13:58] Marissa Lo: Are there any upcoming geoscientific developments or projects that you’re particularly excited about?

[14:05] Jon Gluyas: Geoscience clearly is always changing. 40-odd years ago, as an undergraduate, I wrote a story or wrote a long essay about the meteorite geochemistry, and I got the whole of the Solar System tied down in terms of its geology. What the planetary missions have shown over the last few years in particular, is that my undergraduate thesis back in 1978 was completely wrong! You know, we’ve learned so much more about the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and some of the icy worlds beyond Pluto and Neptune and so on. So, I think that’s probably one of the most exciting developments we’ve seen on a global scale. But there are others, you know, different ones. I’m now involved with the search for natural hydrogen, and if we can find natural hydrogen in substantial quantities and displace some of the petroleum that’s being used, it could change the world. So, there are all kinds of developments, and I’m sure I’ve missed out half a dozen more. The search for helium: we revealed in Tanzania, we can find helium without any associated hydrocarbons. There are new worlds opening up, if not every day, fairly frequently in geoscience, which will captivate minds and challenge us for decades to come.

[15:23] Marissa Lo: Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Jon, and I really hope you enjoy your time as President of the Geological Society.

[15:29] Jon Gluyas: Thank you, Marissa.

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