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Researchers devise new technologies to protect troops, including a trash-to-energy refinery. But a solution to roadside bombs remains elusive.

When garbage piles up in an American city, it’s a nuisance and a health hazard. But at U.S. Army bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s also a security burden. Locally hired trash haulers can be infiltrated by terrorists and so need to be watched and followed. Incinerators, an alternate means of disposal, are no safer. They require fuel, and truck drivers delivering diesel to military outposts can fall prey to highway ambushes by insurgents.

Enter James “Jay” Valdes, the science adviser for biotechnology at the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command, responsible for fielding new technology. He posed the question, “Could we use the garbage to make fuel and thereby get rid of the garbage and help keep the convoys off the streets?” In 2003, he explored the idea in a paper for the Army’s Small Business Technology Transfer Research program, and the following year teamed up with Defense Life Sciences LLC, a McLean, Va., firm that develops bio-energy products, and with biological and agricultural engineers at Purdue University.

The result is TGER, for Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery — a portable refinery, about the size of a panel truck, that can devour up to 2,000 pounds of food waste, paper and plastic trash a day, and has a power output of 60 kilowatts.

Over the spring and summer, two prototypes of the refinery underwent 90 days of field testing amid the dust and 112-degree temperatures at Camp Victory, the sprawling base near Baghdad’s international airport that houses 30,000 troops. “We chose Iraq because we wanted a low-infrastructure, very austere, very hostile, harsh environment,” says Valdes, who visited Iraq in June to check on the tests. “We got it.” TGER’s scientific and engineering principles proved to be sound, but Iraq’s summertime heat exposed mechanical problems that need to be fixed before the refinery is battlefield ready. Valdes likens the experience to “flying an airplane while you’re building it.”

Urgent Wartime Needs

Military technological research often calls to mind futuristic space-based weaponry or “gold-plated” aircraft and warships that take years or even decades to develop, cost billions of dollars to produce and address the perceived strategic threats of the future. Long-term explorations in basic research — the kind that produced the Internet and global positioning systems — continue to be the norm for most university scientific projects sponsored by the Pentagon. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed major gaps in technology needed right away, not only to help the boots-on-the-ground soldier but also to fight an asymmetric guerrilla war. As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said, the United States went to war with the Army it had — one that turned out to be short of basics like armored vehicles and protective gear, not to mention the kind of equipment needed to defeat resilient insurgents who make inventive use of low-tech weapons and explosives. The two conflicts have prodded the Pentagon to shave years off system development and rush new weapons and technology to the battlefield.

“You’ve got to go in and exploit those [scientific] discoveries as fast as you can exploit them in the early days of the war,” says William Rees, deputy undersecretary of defense for laboratories and basic research. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has put a priority on filling immediate needs in Iraq and Afghanistan, even at the expense of some of the military’s more traditional procurement programs. He points proudly to the life-saving capability of the Iraq war-era MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected) troop-carrying vehicle. Even at up to $1 million per vehicle, the cost is worth it, he says.

The TGER (Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery) cleans up war zones and provides needed energy.TGER, pronounced “tiger,” which moved from research to development in a figurative blink of an eye, is one example of how universities have responded to the Pentagon’s rapid-research drive. The Purdue team included Michael R. Ladisch, director of the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering, and Nathan Mosier, an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, as well as students. They provided expertise on enzymes and fermentation techniques, helped with design, located the necessary hardware and assembled the prototypes.

Turning trash to energy was “low-hanging fruit,” says Valdes, a neuroscientist who, besides his work for the Army, is on the graduate faculty at the University of Maryland and an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Baylor University. His interest was piqued by a National Academy of Sciences study on potential nonmedical uses of biotechnology by the Army. “Our initial idea was that we could generate fuel in theater (conflict zone),” he told a bloggers’ roundtable in June, noting that half the fuel consumed in a war actually gets used up transporting…fuel. But specifications for military equipment are too strict to allow the kind of fuel generated by the paper, plastic, Styrofoam, ammunition wrappers and food slop in an Army dustbin. So his team opted instead to produce electricity.

One side of TGER takes dry trash and grinds it into inch-long pellets. A down-draft gasifier heats the pellets and breaks them down into hydrocarbons, yielding a propane-like fuel. On the other side, a fermenter uses yeast and enzymes to turn the mess hall’s wet garbage, containing high-carbohydrate foods and sugary liquids (soldiers in Iraq “drink a lot of Kool-Aid,” Valdes says) into hydrous ethanol — 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent water. The propane and the hydrous ethanol are blended and aspirated into a generator. The blended fuel gradually takes over from the diesel used to power the generator, dropping the proportion of diesel to five percent. The presence of water in the ethanol prevents overheating and knocking.

TGER’s garbage consumption capacity makes it particularly useful for tactical units comprising 550 troops, which produce about 2,200 pounds per day, Valdes says. And it’s both portable and flexible: the hybrid refinery can be transported on a C-130 Hercules cargo plane or on a standard five-ton Army trailer, while its electricity output can be stored in batteries or fed directly into a local power grid. Beyond its battlefield potential, TGER could also be put to use by civilians in the aftermath of a hurricane, which can knock out power and pile up uncollected trash.

“Although still in a prototype phase, this system has the potential to decrease the amount of waste products on the battlefield, decrease the amount of fuel tankers on the dangerous routes and roadways, and can reduce the total logistical footprint of the battlefield,” said Maj. Gen. Fred “Doug” Robinson, commander of the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.

Radar and Robots

TGER’s development roughly coincided with the Iraq war, making it what the military calls a “quick win” in comparison with most research-and-development programs. Another quick turnaround, which the Pentagon is secretive about, is a radar developed by the University of Florida that was transitioned to the military in two years for an unmanned ground sensor system. But the amount of technological “low-hanging fruit” is limited. “I don’t know how long that will go, because at some point you start using up all those quick wins,” Rees warns.

“For every fuel truck you can keep off the road, you just reduce risk. It’s a matter of cost in dollars and in blood.”

­—James Valdes, Science Adviser, U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command

Other technology now headed to the battlefield, such as significantly improved body armor, is the product of 7 to 10 years of fundamental research. In some cases, work was accelerated by wartime need. This happened with ODIS, or the Omni Directional Inspection System, which was yanked from the regular development pipeline on Sept. 12, 2001, and is now slated for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 4-inch-high, 40-pound robot developed by the Army and Utah State University, ODIS moves under vehicles at security checkpoints to detect explosives and contraband, a job that could otherwise expose a soldier to death or injury from a car bomb. An Army-funded research project at Florida State University, led by mechanical engineering professor Emmanuel G. Collins, envisions a more expansive use of robots. Collins is hoping to create an unmanned ground vehicle that could patrol large areas. Something similar has been developed in a partnership between Carnegie Mellon University and BAE Systems. Called Gladiator, it is billed as the first tactical ground robot capable of surveillance, finding a target and detecting nuclear, biological or chemical agents.

“You’ve got to go in and exploit those [scientific] discoveries as fast as you can exploit them in the early days of the war.”

—William Rees, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for laboratories and basic research

Campaign to Defeat IEDs

While the Bush administration entered office aiming to protect the nation against incoming ballistic missiles fired by a rogue state, thousands of soldiers in Iraq later found themselves unprotected against a much smaller, cruder weapon: the improvised explosive device, or IED, often left hidden or disguised on the roadside and not discovered until it had been detonated by radio or wireless device. Together, IEDs and suicide car bombs account for 70 percent of U.S. casualties in Iraq and 50 percent of those in Afghanistan. Survivors of the blasts have lost limbs or suffered traumatic brain injuries that, even in patients with no visible wounds, can damage cells and cause lasting and possibly progressive brain damage.

The Office of Naval Research, the service’s cornerstone basic research center, has launched a sweeping effort through its university-affiliated research centers (UARCs) to combat insurgencies, with a high priority of predicting, detecting and neutralizing IED perils. In what some likened to the Manhattan Project, the Pentagon called on scientists worldwide to contribute. Yet no technological silver bullet has been found, despite such tactics as jamming the radio or wireless signals used to set off roadside bombs and deploying vision-disrupting laser “dazzlers” to foil car-bomb drivers.

While U.S. casualties in Iraq have dropped, at least 20 troops were killed by improvised explosive devices in the month between June 14 and July 14 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials believe only a comprehensive approach incorporating intelligence and persistent surveillance can finally overcome the threat. As a 2007 National Academies report noted, “The ability of the adversary to learn and adapt has been an important characteristic of IED campaigns. The time needed to adapt has typically been shorter than the time needed by counter-IED forces to deploy and implement IED countermeasures. Moreover, IED countermeasures often have the effect of shifting the threat from one device or tactic to another.” More than technology is needed, according to the report, which urged research drawing from a wide array of academic fields, including social science and the humanities.

But along with the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, a $1 billion-plus-a-year crash program to combat the bombs, ONR is on the lookout for promising technologies that can move quickly from the lab to the war zone. “Everybody would like an idea to come up and find its way into the field. And that’s what we’re hoping for,” says Michael Shlesinger, research division director in the Office of Naval Research’s expeditionary warfare department. “It’s a long process. But you look every 20 years, that’s exactly what happens.”

Nicholas Kotov, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Michigan, is working with ONR on a new type of body armor that is stronger than steel but very lightweight, featuring alternating levels of clay and polymers. Researchers still are wrestling with how to maintain the strength of the structure in larger versions of a vest, but it may one day replace the integrated body armor now used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the University of Hawaii, electrical engineering professor Vassilis Syrmos has detected explosive residue on rocks from distances of up to 100 meters. Rensselaer Institute and other universities are working to develop a variety of terahertz lasers to detect IEDs. Meanwhile, William D’Amico is managing several research programs at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory that could potentially have future war zone uses. One may lead to the development of sensors that analyze someone’s breath to determine if he or she has been exposed to battlefield toxins. A positive result might point to a terrorism suspect preparing an attack, Shlesinger suggests.

“None of these is a fielded technology at this point,” Shlesinger says of the university efforts. “They’re all still research but significantly advanced from where they were three years ago.”

Beyond these countermeasures, university scientists and engineering schools are pursuing medical breakthroughs in dealing with IED casualties. These range from neurally-controlled prosthetic limbs for amputees to a clearer understanding of the injuries themselves so better helmets can be designed.


The failure to resolve the IED threat calls into question the value of quick-fix responses. It coincides with a struggle inside the Pentagon over how much to invest in basic research as opposed to meeting the immediate battlefield needs of American soldiers. Rees, whose office focuses on basic research, notes that quick solutions, even life-saving ones, have a “half life” as the enemy adapts. “You’ve got to go back and do a balancing act, and you’ve got to have more of that knowledge discovery so that [you can face] whatever the next challenge is,” Rees says. “We’ve got to be prepared with knowledge that we can exploit in whatever direction.” There is no substitute for the types of innovative, long-term research that has traditionally been universities’ realm, he argues; the military needs to be able to draw from an ever-expanding pool of ideas. “If we’re not making those fundamental discoveries, we know that our capabilities are static,” he adds.

Secretary Gates, past president of Texas A&M, a major research university, is a critic of “next-war-itis,” the defense establishment propensity to develop new and elaborate weapon systems for future conflicts. He has approved hefty budget increases for basic research — about $1 billion over the next five years. But he has set clear parameters on procurement that also provide a guide for university researchers. Future conflicts, he says, are unlikely to threaten America’s air and sea dominance or conventional ground combat forces, the focus of so much research and development in the past. Rather, they will be insurgent wars, much like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I believe that any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that . . . are most likely to engage America’s military in the coming decades.”

Whether or not TGER becomes standard-issue Army equipment for these irregular conflicts, the intent behind it – finding ways to reduce Americans’ exposure to hostile fire – will continue to drive scientists like Jay Valdes. “For every fuel truck you can keep off the road, you just reduce risk. It’s a matter of cost in dollars and in blood,” he says. Valdes himself wouldn’t trade the experience:

“It’s been a real thrill,” he says.


Megan Scully covers military affairs for Congress Daily, a National Journal publication.




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