In a bid to reduce the number of dangerous and expensive convoy missions trekking to remote base camps in Iraq and Afghanistan and to dispose of trash at those bases, the Army is backing an industry project aimed at turning solid waste into diesel.
Covanta Energy Corp. is using the $1.5 million boost from the Army Corps of Engineers to develop technology for converting garbage into diesel that would be indistinguishable from crude oil-based diesel fuel and usable for military vehicles and generators.
"If you could make fuel and eliminate a waste stream at the same time, that's pretty attractive," said the Army Corps of Engineers' Stephen Cosper, an environmental engineer who will help oversee the project. If successful, the technology would be especially useful overseas, he added.
The military's overseas fuel needs are massive. In 2008, the Defense Department supplied more than 68 million gallons of fuel every month, on average, to support forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Government Accountability Office. And the numbers rise when fuel used by diesel-toting convoys is included.
The escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan means fuel costs will likely grow in a landlocked, rugged country with spotty road networks watched by robbers and enemy forces. In June 2008 alone, 44 trucks and 220,000 gallons of fuel were lost due to attacks or other events during efforts to deliver fuel to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, according to GAO.
Processing trash at remote, temporary base camps in Iraq and Afghanistan is inherently tricky because setting up incinerators designed for long-term use is expensive, but burn pits -- ideally used to dispose of trash on a short-term basis -- have been linked to health problems for those exposed to them. In Iraq and Afghanistan, where no base camps are permanent, the reasoning behind when to bring in incinerators can be murky.
Any technology that could help large, semipermanent bases meet some of their own fuel needs on-site could help reduce fuel costs, health risks and inherent dangers to fuel envoys. That is where Covanta Energy's project may help the Army get ahead.
To make diesel from trash, Covanta Renewable Fuels LLC, a subsidiary of Covanta Energy, would take solid waste, blend it with heavy oil and a catalyst, and then heat the stew to 500 degrees in a specialized turbine reactor that could convert the organic trash into liquid diesel fuel, said Steve Goff, vice president of research and development at Covanta.
"It is a catalytic depolymerization process that would depend on a patented catalyst purchased from German company AlphaKat," Goff said. To his knowledge, he added, no one else is working on this type of technology.