Getting Afghan Opium Farmers To Grow Biofuel Crops

By Scott Doggett March 29, 2011

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According to Interpol, 90 percent of the world's opium -- the chief ingredient of heroin -- comes from Afghanistan. And according to a recent report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghan opium farmers are, at $4,900 per hectare, doing great. Everyone from the lowly poppy grower to the country's druglords are reaping large cash harvests. But that's not stopping one U.S. Marine from trying to get the opium farmers to switch to biofuel crops.

Sgt-Brian-Nelson photo courtesy US Marines.jpgThe subscription news service Greenwire, in a lengthy report this week, described how 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 (left), who has already served two tours in Iraq and recently signed up for a third, 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, Greenwire reported. His work is part of an experimental U.S. effort to maintain gains over the Taliban by developing local biofuels the military would presumably purchase.

Cash Crop
Nelson isn't the first person to push for biofuels in Afghanistan. Several years ago a couple of Army veterans 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. A report on that unsuccessful effort appeared in a recent issue of The Atlantic magazine. A CIA analysis concluded that poppy-derived biodiesel offered excellent value, excellent quantity and quality, and a positive environmental impact, the magazine said. However, "poppy fuel" would no doubt leave approving politicians open to ridicule and, predictably, gained no traction.

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, which sells for a fraction of the price of opium. But the biofuels idea did not die.

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Need For Fuel
The Marine Corps alone uses 200,000 gallons of fuel each day in Afghanistan, Greenwire reported, and fuel convoys are an especially easy target for improvised explosive devices 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 this week. "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, Greenwire reported.

Alternative Sourcing
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.

The Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office told Nelson to test the idea of making a biofuel out of cottonseed oil with a pilot project. Nelson succeeded in obtaining four barrels of cottonseed oil and only recently just burned the last of those initial 220 gallons after running experiments through the winter. He concluded 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 (Jet Propellant 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."

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.

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