Project Gasbuggy, a plowshare program

On Dec. 10, 1967, Project Gasbuggy was conducted in a sandstone gas-bearing formation in the San Juan Basin near Farmington, New Mexico. Carried out under the technical direction of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory Livermore, with participation from the El Paso Natural Gas Company and the Department of the Interior, Gasbuggy was the first of three joint government-industry Plowshare program experiments conducted to investigate the feasibility of stimulating the production of natural gas via nuclear explosions.

The idea for Project Gasbuggy was born 10 years earlier, in 1957. Shortly after the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) established the Plowshare program to explore the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, officers from the El Paso Natural Gas Company wrote a letter to Livermore scientists inquiring as to the possibility of using nuclear explosives to increase gas production. While the idea seemed attractive, the technology, at the time, was not sufficiently advanced enough to design a reasonable experiment. A few years later, in 1961, after surveying the results of the first Plowshare test, Project Gnome, the Bureau of Mines noted that “the potential is such that it warrants further careful study and consideration.”

After several feasibility studies, a joint agreement was signed in January 1967 and field construction for Gasbuggy began. After months of planning, and some delays, Gasbuggy was executed on Dec. 10, 1967, when Livermore scientists detonated a 29-kiloton nuclear device in a sandstone formation at a 4,300-foot depth. The detonation, which occurred six years to the day after Project Gnome (1961), produced a chimney 335 feet high with a diameter of almost 165 feet. As the first joint government-industry undertaking in the Plowshare program, the experiment attracted international attention and was attended by almost 500 observers from industry, government, science and the press.

Within hours of the detonation, initial drilling to collect samples began. Over the following years, gas was extracted from the chimney in a total of six major production tests, with the last occurring in 1973. The Gasbuggy results were encouraging in that gas production was increased six to eight times over previous rates. However, the Plowshare nuclear device used for Gasbuggy, which had been designed to minimize post-detonation residual radiation, still resulted in an undesirable high concentration of tritium in the gas.

Based on Gasbuggy’s results, two additional Plowshare gas stimulation nuclear experiments were conducted. The second test, Project Rulison, was carried out in September 1969 under the technical direction of Los Alamos, but results yielded gas with quality issues similar to Gasbuggy. For Project Rio Blanco, Livermore scientists, in partnership with the CER-Geonuclear Corporation, conducted this third and last gas stimulation experiment in northwestern Colorado in May 1973. Livermore’s device design for Rio Blanco proved to be acceptably clean, but only small amounts of gas were obtained. Subsequent tests revealed various issues with the chosen site - making production testing impractical.

While the Gasbuggy, Ruliso, and Rio Blanco tests established the technical feasibility for gas stimulation using nuclear explosives, economic viability was never demonstrated and the experiments effectively brought the Plowshare program to a close. Rio Blanco was the last field experiment in the Plowshare program to be conducted, as environmental concerns, as well as opposition to nuclear energy and nuclear devices, led to the overall demise of the program. Plowshare was officially terminated in 1977.

The closure of Plowshare, however, marked the beginning of Livermore’s work with U.S. industry to enhance subsurface energy production. From 1974 to 1988, processes for in situ coal gasification (the conversion of coal beds to gas without mining) were developed. So too, researchers pursued avenues that led to a technical demonstration of retorting oil shale to recover oil from large U.S. reserves. Today, the Lab is partnered with both large and small companies in the oil and gas industry to optimize the production of unconventional oil and gas.