Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear “Fracking”

Government scientists blast deep natural gas wells trying to increase production.

 

project gasbuggy nuclear gas well test

Scientists lowered a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear device into a New Mexico gas well. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy bomb was detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.

Project Gasbuggy was the first in a series of Atomic Energy Commission downhole nuclear detonations to release natural gas trapped in shale. This was “fracking” late 1960s style.

In December 1967, government scientists – exploring the peacetime use of controlled atomic explosions – detonated Gasbuggy, a 29-kiloton nuclear device they had lowered into a natural gas well in rural New Mexico. 

The Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons.

Project Gasbuggy’s team included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company. They sought a new, powerful method for fracturing petroleum-bearing formations.

Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet – and lowered a 13-foot-long by 18-inch-wide nuclear device into the borehole.

Plowshare Program: Safe uses for Nukes

The 1967 experimental explosion in New Mexico was part of a wider set of experiments known as Plowshare, a program established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957 to explore the constructive use of nuclear explosive devices.

project gasbuggy geology diagram

The 1967 nuclear detonation produced 295 million cubic feet of natural gas – and Tritium radiation.

“The reasoning was that the relatively inexpensive energy available from nuclear explosions could prove useful for a wide variety of peaceful purposes,” notes a report later prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy.

From 1961 to 1973, researchers carried out dozens of separate experiments under the Plowshare program – setting off 29 nuclear detonations.

Most of the experiments focused on creating craters and canals. Among other goals, it was hoped the Panama Canal could be inexpensively widened. “In the end, although less dramatic than nuclear excavation, the most promising use for nuclear explosions proved to be for stimulation of natural gas production,” explains the September 2011 government report.

Tests, mostly conducted in Nevada, also took place in the petroleum fields of New Mexico and Colorado. Project Gasbuggy was the first of three nuclear fracturing experiments that focused on stimulating natural gas production. Two later tests took place in Colorado.

Atomic Energy Commission scientists worked with experts from the Astral Oil Company of Houston, with engineering support from CER Geonuclear Corporation of Las Vegas. The experimental wells, which required custom drill bits to meet the hole diameter and narrow hole deviation requirements, were drilled by Denver-based Signal Drilling Company or its affiliate, Superior Drilling Company. Project Rulison was the second of the three nuclear gas well stimulation projects.

project gasbuggy rigs at well site

Gasbuggy: “Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs.”

In 1969, Project Rulison – at a site near Rulison, Colorado – detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear device almost 8,500 feet underground to produce commercially viable amounts of natural gas.

A few years later, project Rio Blanco, northwest of Rifle, Colorado, was designed to increase natural gas production from low-permeability sandstone.

The May 1973 Rio Blanco test consisted of the nearly simultaneous detonation of three 33-kiloton devices in a single well, according to the Office of Environmental Management. The explosions occurred at depths of 5,838, 6,230, and 6,689 feet below ground level. It would prove to be the last experiment of the Plowshare program.

Although a 50-kiloton nuclear explosion to fracture deep oil shale deposits – Project Bronco – was proposed, it never took place. Growing knowledge (and concern) about radioactivity ended these tests for the peaceful use of nuclear explosions. The Plowshare program was canceled in 1975. In its September 2011 report on all the nuclear test projects, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded:

By 1974, approximately 82 million dollars had been invested in the nuclear gas stimulation technology program (i.e., nuclear tests Gasbuggy, Rulison, and Rio Blanco). It was estimated that even after 25 years of gas production of all the natural gas deemed recoverable, that only 15 to 40 percent of the investment could be recovered. At the same time, alternative, non-nuclear technologies were being developed, such as hydrofracturing. Consequently, under the pressure of economic and environmental concerns, the Plowshare Program was discontinued at the end of FY 1975.

Project Gasbuggy

project gasbuggy government fracturing illustration

Government scientists believed a nuclear device would provide “a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin” for fracturing dense shales and releasing natural gas. Los Alamos Lab photo.

“There was no mushroom cloud, but on December 10, 1967, a nuclear bomb exploded less than 60 miles from Farmington,” explained historian Wade Nelson in an article written three decades later, “Nuclear explosion shook Farmington.”

The 4,042-foot-deep detonation created a molten glass-lined cavern about 160 feet in diameter and 333 feet tall. It collapsed within seconds. 

Subsequent measurements indicated fractures extended more than 200 feet in all directions – and significantly increased natural gas production.

A September 1967 Popular Mechanics article had described how nuclear explosives could improve previous fracturing technologies, including gunpowder, dynamite, TNT – and fractures “made by forcing down liquids at high pressure.” (Erle Halliburton had tested hydraulic fracturing in the late 1940s.)

An illustration from Popular Mechanics shows how a nuclear explosive would improve earlier technologies by creating bigger fractures and a “huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas.”

Scientists predicted that nuclear explosives would create more and bigger fractures “and hollow out a huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas” released from the fractures.

“Geologists had discovered years before that setting off explosives at the bottom of a well would shatter the surrounding rock and could stimulate the flow of oil and gas,” Nelson explains.

“It was believed a nuclear device would simply provide a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin, up to 3,500 quarts of which would be used in a single shot,” Nelson notes.

project gasbuggy carson national forest

The underground detonation was part of a bigger program begun in the late 1950s to explore peaceful uses of nuclear explosions.

“Today, all that remains at the site is a plaque warning against excavation and perhaps a trace of tritium in your milk,” Nelson adds in his 1999 article.

Nelson quotes James Holcomb, site foreman for El Paso Natural Gas, who saw a pair of white vans that delivered pieces of the disassembled nuclear bomb.

“They put the pieces inside this lead box, this big lead box…I (had) shot a lot of wells with nitroglycerin and I thought, ‘That’s not going to do anything,” reported Holcomb. A series of three production tests, each lasting 30 days, was completed during the first half of 1969. Nelson notes that records indicate the Gasbuggy well produced 295 million cubic feet of gas.

“Nuclear Energy: Good Start for Gasbuggy,” proclaimed the December 22, 1967, TIME magazine. The Department of Energy, which had hoped for much higher production, determined that Tritium radiation contaminated the gas. It  flared – burned off – the gas during production tests that lasted until 1973. Tritium is a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen. A 2012 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission report noted, “Tritium emits a weak form of radiation, a low-energy beta particle similar to an electron. The tritium radiation does not travel very far in air and cannot penetrate the skin.”

project gasbuggy marker

A plaque marks the site of Project Gasbuggy in the Carson National Forest, 90 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

According to Nelson, radioactive contamination from the flaring “was miniscule compared to the fallout produced by atmospheric weapons tests in the early 1960s.” From the well site, Holcomb called the test a success. “The well produced more gas in the year after the shot than it had in all of the seven years prior,” he said.

In 2008, the Energy Department’s Office of Legacy Management assumed responsibility for long-term surveillance and maintenance at the Gasbuggy site. A marker placed at the Gasbuggy site by the Department of Energy in November 1978 reads:

Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs. A 29 kiloton nuclear explosive was detonated at a depth of 4227 feet below this surface location on December 10, 1967. No excavation, drilling, and/or removal of materials to a true vertical depth of 1500 feet is permitted within a radius of 100 feet of this surface location. Nor any similar excavation, drilling, and/or removal of subsurface materials between the true vertical depth of 1500 feet to 4500 feet is permitted within a 600 foot radius of t 29 n. R 4 w. New Mexico principal meridian, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico without U.S. Government permission.

Today, hydraulic fracturing – pumping a mixture of fluid and sand down a well at extremely high pressure – stimulates production of natural gas wells. Read more in Shooters – A “Fracking” History. 

Parker Drilling Rig No. 114

oil museums Parker rig at Elk City

Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 – among those used to drill wells for nuclear detonations, was later modified to drill conventual wells. Since 1991 the 17-story rig has welcomed visitors to Elk City, Oklahoma, and the now shuttered Anadarko Museum of Natural History. Photo by Bruce Wells.

In 1969, Parker Drilling Company signed a contract with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to drill a series of holes up to 120 inches in diameter and 6,500 feet in depth in Alaska and Nevada for additional nuclear bomb tests. Parker Drilling’s Rig No. 114 was one of three special rigs built to drill the wells.

Founded in Tulsa in 1934 by Gifford C. Parker, by the 1960s Parker Drilling had set numerous world records for deep and extended-reach drilling. According to the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School, the company “created its own niche by developing new deep-drilling technology that has since become the industry standard.”

Following completion of the nuclear-test wells, Parker Drilling modified Rig No. 114 and its two sister rigs to drill conventual wells at record-breaking depths. After retiring Rig No. 114 from service, Parker Drilling loaned the giant to Elk City, Oklahoma, as an energy education exhibit next to the Anadarko Museum of Natural History. Since 1991 the has welcomed visitors to traveling on Route 66 or I-40 and the now closed oil museum. Learn more about deep drilling in Anadarko Basin in Depth.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear “Fracking”.” Author: AOGHS.ORG Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/project-gasbuggy. Last Updated: December 8, 2019. Original Published Date: December 10, 2013.

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Ending Oil Gushers – BOP

An revolutionary idea sketched on the sawdust floor of a Texas machine shop.

 

 

James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron in 1922 filed a patent for the hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer. Their invention was a vital technology for ending dangerous oil gushers. 

“The object of our invention is to provide a device designed to be secured to the top of the casing while the drilling is being done and which will be adapted to be closed tightly about the drill stem when necessary,” they noted in their application, which was approved in January 1926. It revolutionized the petroleum industry. (more…)

Exploring Seismic Waves

Oklahomans first use reflections and refractions as way to find oil.

Exploring seismic waves is all about a vital earth science technology – reflection seismography – which first revolutionized petroleum exploration in the 1920s. Seismic waves have led to oilfield discoveries worldwide and billions of barrels of oil. 

seismic waves

A tourist site for geologists, a sign and historic marker on I-35 near Ardmore, Oklahoma, commemorates the August 9, 1921, test of seismic technology.

Seismic technologies evolved from efforts to locate enemy artillery during World War I. (more…)

Pump Jack at Powder Mill Creek

 

The search for new technologies for pumping oil from wells – pump jacks – began soon after America’s first commercial discovery in 1859 near Titusville, Pennsylvania. For that well, Edwin Drake used a common water-well hand pump from a nearby kitchen.

A circa 1914 oil pumping jack, gears and flywheels remain intact less than a mile east of Powder Mill Creek in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Patrice Gilbert, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.



By the turn of the century, a wide variety of methods, including pumping multiple wells from a single power source, helped meet growing demand for petroleum.

In 1992, photographer Patrice Gilbert discovered an abandoned circa 1910 pumping machinery in the lush Pennsylvania countryside southeast of Youngstown. The heavy iron equipment must have been too difficult or expensive to move from the site when the well was capped decades ago, according to the National Park Service.

A park service historian noted the remarkably preserved pump’s advanced design was “technologically significant as representing an early gear-driven pumping jack, designed during a period of great pumping jack experimentation in the early 1900s.”

Calendar-2015-Cover

The 2015 “Today in American Petroleum History” calendar offers industry milestones with 12 oil patch photographs from the Library of Congress.

Gilbert’s photograph is among 12 from the Library of Congress collection featured in the 2015 “Today in American Petroleum History” calender published by the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. The annual calendar features industry milestones, including oilfield discoveries, inventions, pioneers, and more. Sales (order here) support the society’s energy education mission.

Powder Mill Oil Well

The rusting pump jack near Powder Mill Creek and Connoquenessing Creek recalls one of many Pennsylvania petroleum booms.

The Bald Ridge field in Butler County was one of the state’s top three oil-producing counties from 1889 into the 1920s. Prolific discoveries beginning as early as 1872 eventually brought hundreds of steam-powered, cable-tool drilling rigs.

On this site circa 1914, on land owned by a man named Heckert, a Bream Oil Company drilling rig reached 1,566 feet – and struck an oil-producing “pay sand” six feet thick. (more…)

Blue Flame Natural Gas Rocket Car

Industry executives recognized the public relations potential of LNG after watching Dick Keller’s dragster X-1 in 1968.

 

blue flame

The Blue Flame made a spectacular debut at the Bonneville Salt Flats on October 23, 1970, setting a new world land speed record of 630.388 mph.

The quest for speed perhaps began when Mrs. Karl Benz secretly took her husband’s car on the first road trip in 1882. Steam and electric vehicles would soon compete with the cantankerous combustion of gasoline engines.

As engine technologies evolved, high-octane but dangerous enhancers like tetraethyl gas were adopted for aviation. On the ground, as competition intensified for a land speed record, kerosene-based rocket fuel powered blistering, new milestones.

But in 1970, a sleek blue feat of engineering set the world record of 630 mph. The Blue Flame was powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). In recent years, a growing abundance of U.S. natural gas supplies promises innovation for applying what is often called the “fuel of the future.” (more…)

Offshore Rocket Launcher

Converted drilling platform becomes equatorial rocket launch pad.

Offshore Rocket Launcher rocket blasts off

Russian-built rockets once launched satellites from the Ocean Odyssey, a modified semi-submersible drilling platform. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.

Many offshore oil and natural gas platforms have found use after retirement. Hundreds of former platforms today serve as aquatic habitats in the Gulf of Mexico (see Rigs to Reefs). Two historic jack-up drilling rigs are museums and energy education centers in Texas and Louisiana. One retired self-propelled platform once launched rockets.

Ten percent (about 450) of decommissioned production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico have been converted to permanent reefs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A retired jack-up drilling rig in Galveston Bay, Texas, the Ocean Star, opened as a petroleum museum in 1997 after drilling more than 200 wells. Another offshore museum, Mr. Charlie of Morgan City, Louisiana, was the first submersible drilling rig in 1953.

The Ocean Odyssey, a self-propelled, semi-submersible drilling platform designed to endure 110 foot North Atlantic waves, became a floating equatorial launch pad. In March 1999, a Russian Zenit-3SL rocket – fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen – placed a demonstration satellite into geostationary orbit from the Ocean Odyssey’s remote Pacific Ocean launch site (Latitude 0° North, Longitude 154° West).

offshore rocket launcher began as this drilling rig

Constructed in Japan in 1982, the Ocean Odyssey was designed to endure 110 foot North Atlantic waves before it became a floating equatorial launch pad. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.

Sea Launch, a Boeing-led consortium of companies from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Norway, began commercial launches on October 9, 1999, using a Russian Zenit-3SL rocket with a DirecTV satellite payload. By 2014 the Ocean Odyssey had made 36 such launches for XM Satellite Radio, Echo Star and communication companies.

Originally to have been named Ocean Ranger II, the $110 million platform was under construction in Yokosuka, Japan, on February 15, 1982, when its namesake and predecessor tragically capsized in a North Atlantic storm off Newfoundland, killing all 84 men aboard. Renamed Ocean Odyssey, the new offshore drilling platform went to work that same year.

Between April 1983 and September 1985 the platform drilled off the coasts of Alaska and California before a two-year hiatus. In early 1988, the Ocean Odyssey was contracted to Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) for North Sea explorations. All was well until September 1988 when a blow-out and fire ended the rig’s career in oilfields.

offshore rocket launcher Sea Launch oil platform

Led by a Boeing, the Sea Launch consortium of international companies used Russian Zenit-3SL rockets to carry communications satellites into geosynchronous orbits. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.

After spending the several years as a rusting hulk in the docks of Dundee, Scotland, advancing aerospace technologies came to the rescue of the self-propelled platform, 436 feet long and about 220 feet wide.

The advantages of space launches from the equator – and the availability of the Ocean Odyssey – prompted Boeing to convert the rig into a launch platform. According to experts, the speed of earth’s rotation is greatest at the equator, providing a minor extra launch “boost.”

By April 1995, Boeing (with 40 percent ownership) led a four-country joint partnership, Sea Launch LLC. The venture included: Russia (25 percent), Norway (20 percent), and Ukraine (15 percent).

offshore rocket launcher Sea Launch converted oil rig

Ocean Odyssey’s last launch on May 26, 2014, came as civil war broke out in Ukraine. Bankruptcy and years of litigation followed. Photo courtesy Steve Jurvetson.

Ocean Star oil museum in Galveston Bay.

Another platform, the Ocean Star, opened as a museum in 1997 in Galveston Bay. Photo by Bruce Wells

Thanks to Ocean Odyssey, a new industry was “launched.”The consortium established its U.S. home port in Long Beach, California, near satellite, aerospace and maritime supply companies. Before the end of 1995, Hughes Space and Communications had contracted for 10 launches.

However, economic and legal troubles emerged. After almost 40 launches (with three failures), operating costs and a declining world economy led to Sea Launch’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization in 2009. Russia emerged with 95 percent ownership.

Then began litigation, claims and counter-claims within the Sea Launch consortium. Ocean Odyssey’s last launch in May 2014 came as civil war broke out in Ukraine.

According to financial reports, the company’s debt when it filed for bankruptcy was estimated at $1 billion, with assets of $100 million to $500 million. The cost per launch was more than $80 million. Boeing sued to recoup $356 million of a reported $978 million loss in loans, trade debt and partner liabilities.

At the end of 2014, the Ocean Odyssey and its command ship, Sea Launch Commander, remained at port in Long Beach.

Learn about America’s Offshore Petroleum History and visit the Ocean Star Offshore Energy Center in Galveston and Mr. Charlie in Morgan City.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information: Article Title: “Offshore Rocket Launcher.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/offshore-rocket-launcher. Last Updated: October 7, 2019. Original Published Date: January 2, 2015.

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