Beneath drab tan and olive green tents in a corner of the forward operating base used in the quartermaster liquid logistics exercise on Fort Bragg is a half-million dollar laboratory where samples of bulk fuel are vigorously tested to meet the standards for military vehicles and aircraft.
For the petroleum laboratory specialists of the Kinston, N.C.-based 362nd Quartermaster Battalion, self-described “lab rats,” the job of testing diesel and jet fuel is an exact science that can save lives on the battlefield or in the air.
Twelve Soldiers, led by a staff sergeant, use tools and state-of-the art technology. Chemistry and math are the tools they use to determine the suitability of the fuel for use in military trucks and aircraft. There are three categories of tested fuel: OG – on grade, SFU – suitability for use, NSFU – not suitable for use. On grade fuel is the highest quality fuel. Aircraft can only use OG fuel. SFU fuel is good enough for use in ground vehicles, as long as it is not stored for a lengthy period of time. SFU fuel cannot be used in aircraft. NSFU fuel cannot be used in any military vehicle.
“Our job is to catch fuel with impurities before it gets into a vehicle,” said Staff Sgt. Stacia Rascoe of Winterville, N.C. “We test the fuel and if it is contaminated, we make recommendations to the supplier to find out how to improve it.”
Fuel is subject to a battery of tests including a thermal oxidation test, sulfur test, American Petroleum Institute test, cloudpoint test, flashpoint test, weight test, titration test and desiccation test. Most of the tests measure for levels of contaminants, but other tests determine fuel performance in extreme environments. For example, the cloudpoint test measures fuel performance in very low temperatures, such as in the tank of a high-altitude jet. If fuel will freeze or crystallize, then a jet can fall from the sky. The prospect of equipment failure that can jeopardize the life of a servicemember is one reason why the “lab rats” take their job so seriously.
“Testing fuel saves lives and helps us fight and win wars,” said Staff Sgt. Kareen Tripp of Greenville, N.C., who serves as noncommissioned officer in charge of the lab. “It’s important that we follow our high standards to get the best quality results.”
Safety is another aspect of the petroleum laboratory. Smoking is strictly prohibited and visitors are discouraged from approaching the tent by a “Do not disturb” sign. Laboratory stoves are highly-flammable and create a dangerous environment. The Army value of discipline is strictly exercised in the petroleum laboratory or harm can result.
“If you don’t do things by the book, you run the risk of causing an explosion,” Rascoe said.
The lab is air conditioned and equipped with a fire suppression system. The walls and door of the laboratory are thick enough that any outside signal from a radio or cellular phone can’t penetrate inside. In addition to the mission of keeping military vehicles moving, the Soldiers of the petroleum laboratory have a shared interest in the data and precision of their job.
“I come from a math background and you are with other Soldiers who have a similar mindset,” said Pfc. Michael Brewington of Greenville “This job is so important because it helps keep planes in the air and trucks rolling.”
Gallons of fuel are stored in ground storage tanks and transported by tankers, all kept in top order by rigorous inspections and standards. But none of the bulk fuel moves anywhere, or gets pumped into any vehicle until a dozen dedicated Soldiers in a small lab on the corner of the FOB make sure fuel is fit to help win the fight.