Marine Sgt. Brian Nelson found himself alone with four hard-won barrels of cottonseed oil one day last fall in a Afghan field in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province.
The 31-year-old chemical engineer from Falmouth, Mass., was waiting for an Osprey aircraft to take him and his 55-gallon barrels to Camp Leatherneck, the launchpad for some 30,000 coalition forces conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan's rugged southwestern provinces.
Nelson, who has already served two tours in Iraq, spent this past winter tinkering with combinations of cottonseed oil and JP-8, the military's universal fuel, to find a blend that works best in Camp Leatherneck's generators. His work is part of an experimental U.S. effort to maintain gains over the Taliban by developing local biofuels.
Originally, Nelson said, military leaders had hoped to produce poppyseed oil as a biofuel and give Afghan farmers an alternative product for their more than 8,000 tons of yearly opium.
As it stands, the illicit opium poppy crop, grown mostly in southern provinces, is a thorn in the side of coalition forces. In 2006 and 2007, shortly after the Taliban returned to the region, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that insurgents and warlords made between $200 million and $400 million off the crop. Meanwhile, opium addiction is a mounting problem among the Afghan population.
But by the time Nelson, who has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of New Hampshire, was recruited for the project, the anti-poppy campaign had shifted course, instead focusing on creating incentives for farmers to grow legal food crops like wheat.
But the biofuels idea did not die.
The Marine Corps alone uses 200,000 gallons of fuel each day in Afghanistan, and fuel convoys are an especially easy target for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set by insurgents -- a fact that has not escaped the notice of military leaders. All the services are taking steps to cut their fuel dependency and switch to alternative sources, and shortly after Nelson deployed to Afghanistan, the Marine Corps commandant issued some of the most aggressive energy-reduction goals of all the services.
"By tethering our operations to vulnerable supply lines, it degrades our expeditionary capabilities and ultimately puts Marines at risk," wrote Commandant Gen. James Amos in the Marine Corps' new expeditionary energy report, which was released today. "Transforming the way we use energy is essential to rebalance our Corps and prepare it for the future."
The marines' targets are especially notable because they include energy usage cuts for the tip-of-the-spear operations Marines are known for, such as those happening out of Camp Leatherneck. By 2025, the Marines aim to use half the amount of fuel they do today.
So Marine Corps leadership was eagerly scouting out ideas for alternative fuels when they learned that a newly reopened cotton gin in Helmand province was producing an excess of cottonseed oil. The Afghans were using some of the extra oil for animal feed, but the Marines realized it could also make a good biofuel.
Creating fuel out of any vegetable oil is easy, and cottonseed oil is especially appealing because it is very stable, according to Alice Pilgeram, a Montana State University researcher who works with U.S. farmers to produce biofuels.
"It's unbelievably simple. It's so simple, it's not even funny," Pilgeram said. "And the best biodiesel you're going to be able to produce is one from your region because it's already adapted to the region."
'Everything out here is extremely difficult'
But nothing is simple in Afghanistan, so the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office told Nelson to test the idea with a pilot project.
And Nelson quickly found that just getting enough oil for his experiments could be a herculean challenge.
After connecting with one of the cotton gin's employees and working through an interpreter to explain what he wanted -- Nelson says the words "filter" and "generator" do not translate easily -- he set off to retrieve his barrels.
It was a multi-leg trip that sent Nelson from the American base to a British camp closer to Lashkar Gah, the Helmand provincial capital that is home to the gin. Then, in full flak gear and accompanied by a security unit, Nelson ventured to a village halfway between the camp and the city to meet his contact.
When the gin employee arrived in a battered little truck, he and Nelson ducked into a shop.
"You're trying to pay him without the locals seeing, so that they don't know you have money and they don't know he has money once he leaves," Nelson said.
There is only one way to do it: "Very carefully."
The four barrels were loaded into Nelson's vehicle, and he rode nervously back to the British base.
"We left with a little pickup truck ... and the shocks were completely compressed," he recalled, laughing. "Every bump along the road, we're wondering if these barrels are going to go flying out the back."
Then, from the British base, Nelson awaited his Osprey flight back to Camp Leatherneck.
"It's kind of a neat experience ... it's just you and these four barrels of oil, and seeing this aircraft come out of the sky and pick up this cottonseed oil," he said.
"It's more difficult than anything you could ever imagine -- to make all those steps along the way happen."
Nelson just burned the last of those initial 220 gallons of cottonseed oil after running experiments through the winter, and he says that the fuel holds promise.
"As long as the temperature stays pretty warm, we have some great results," he said. "It burns just a little bit slower than JP-8, the generators require just a little bit more maintenance, but it was easy to clean out the filters and it burns just a little bit cleaner without putting so much nitrous oxide in the air."
Chilly temperatures posed a problem in his experiments, though. In the same way that cooking oil or butter gets more viscous at colder temperatures, so, too, does cottonseed oil.
On cold nights -- and during the winter in Afghanistan, there are lots of cold nights -- Nelson found the thicker oil clogged the generators. But he came up with some ways around it. For example, he developed a technique to use heat from the generator to warm the oil, or simply keep oil inside until it was ready to be used.
The bigger challenge is the logistics that would be required to scale up the project.
The military uses an enormous amount of fuel, and as the Department of the Navy, which includes the Marine Corps, angles to get to 50 percent alternative energy by the end of the decade, taking biofuels to scale is a high hurdle, even in the United States (Climatewire, Jan. 25).
The legwork it took for Nelson to get just a small amount of the fuel suggests Afghan cottonseed oil won't be making a dent in U.S. forces' fossil fuel consumption anytime soon. But that does not mean top Defense leaders don't see promise in the project.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has made energy security his touchstone, touted the nascent effort in written testimony to Congress earlier this month.
The pilot project is "simultaneously demonstrating to Afghan farmers that there are alternatives to opium, and demonstrating to Afghan leaders that they can power their own economy from within Afghanistan," he wrote.
Although Nelson's work so far has been on U.S. military equipment, the potential to teach the process to Afghan farmers is what really gets him excited.
"This is something that would create almost a closed-circuit system for them," Nelson said. "At some point in the future when we pull out, we want to make sure that their economy doesn't fall out from underneath them so we don't have to come right back in. Little by little, we're trying to teach them these lessons and showing them how to use their own resources to their benefit."
Pilgeram, the Montana biofuels researcher, said that small-scale, on-farm production is where biofuel economics work best.
"A farmer in Montana can maybe sell his oil to a biodiesel producer for $1.50 a gallon," she explained. "On the other hand, if that farmer can convert that oil into his own fuel, it's actually worth $3.50 a gallon because he doesn't have to buy diesel.
"Everywhere, the economics end up making a lot more sense."
With his cottonseed oil gone and the finishing touches on his project report just about complete, Nelson is getting ready to return home. By the time the report makes it onto the desks of military decisionmakers, he will likely be back in the United States.
But Nelson has already signed on for another tour in Afghanistan, which he expects will begin in the fall.
"I jumped at the opportunity," the Marine said. "Now we can start building momentum with it. The hardest part, in my opinion, is over."
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