Camp Wilson, Twentynine Palms, Calif -- When most people think of fuel, they just pump it and go.
Well, in California, people think of their empty wallets at the gas pumps due to increasing prices, but hardly anyone thinks of the quality of gasoline being pumped into their vehicle.
But for Marines of MEU Service Support Group 13's Bulk Fuel Company, who operate vehicles in dusty, sandy environments such as Twentynine Palms, thinking about fuel quality is paramount. It's so important, the unit deployed its tactical petroleum laboratory, complete with fuel testing equipment, for the first time here.
"We can test any type of petroleum product here," explained Cpl. James Baird, a bulk fuel lab technician with Bulk Fuel Co., 7th Engineer Support Battalion. "Aviation fuel, diesel, motor oil, you name it. If it's refined from petroleum, we can test it."
Fuel is tested in the tactical petroleum lab to determine whether it meets American Petroleum Institute standards for octane ratings and how well the fuel was refined. In other words, "it tells us if we've got a cheap batch of fuel," Cpl. Baird, a 33-year-old of Jerome, Idaho, said. The fuel is also tested for sediments and water.
When a tanker delivers fuel, a small quantity is pulled for testing while the fuel is being delivered. The small quantity is sent to Cpl. Baird, who was trained at a ten-week course in Fort Lee, Va., and he conducts tests such as the API gravity test and the thermohydrometer spin test.
"The distillation machine is used to tell how pure the fuel is," said SSgt. Michael Coffin, 37, a platoon sergeant with Bulk Fuel Co. "It's a process which turns the liquid to steam, and the bad fuel rises to the top, while good fuel goes to the bottom." The fuel quality is determined by the percentage of good fuel to bad fuel. SSgt. Coffin also described a viscosity machine, which gives a determination of the thermal breakdown rating of oil and grease.
While he's been out in the desert, Cpl. Baird has found no bad batches of fuel. "I've yet to test anything that has come close to what we consider bad," he said. "This has been some of the best fuel we've ever received." Fuel considered bad is fuel outside of API specifications.
In case there is a bad batch of fuel, Cpl. Baird doesn't call the supplier back and tell them to bring an empty tanker to take their fuel back. Instead, the fuel is "comingled" with a good batch of fuel.
"In that case, depending on the quality of the bad fuel, we would combine it with good fuel to bring it up to a quality, useable level," Cpl. Baird explained. But aviation fuel is not comingled, said MSgt. Russell Thomas, 38, the assistant operations chief, Bulk Fuel Co., 7th ESB. This is a safeguard to ensure the aviation fuel is of the highest quality.
"Comingling is just not done on the aviation side," he said. "We do not comingle aviation fuel."
Testing in the tactical lab is not limited to ensuring fuel quality. It can also help pinpoint problems in engines, Cpl. Baird said.
"A five-ton truck had a problem, and the mechanics thought it might have been a blown head gasket," Cpl. Baird said. "Before tearing the motor down, they sent a sample of the engine oil to see if it had antifreeze in it, which gave them a better handle on what the problem was. Testing the oil also prevented them from having to go through other phases of inspection to see what the problem was."
With the tactical petroleum lab up and running in the field, not only are problems solved, this testing prevents problems from occurring. From truck drivers to pilots, Marines don't have to worry about the fuel they put into their vehicles.
It's just pump and go.