Poppy Biofeul

Little known fact: The first diesel engine was able to run on peanut oil.

With petroleum putting the squeeze on the environment and our pocketbooks, the push to create sustainable biofuels with commodity crops is increasing.

There’s an intriguing prospect in the March issue of The Atlantic by Nicholas Schmidle about efforts to turn the poppy fields of Afghanistan into a source of biodiesel fuel that will not only benefit the gas-guzzlers of the world, but the Afghan people themselves.

Michael Bester, a former Army soldier, is leading a team of visionaries trying to sway poppies away from the traditional opium trade, and towards the sustainable energy domain. Their project, not surprisingly, has met with a bit of resistance.

During the Bush administration, the White House felt that the only way to beat the opium trade was to raze the poppy fields. When Obama took office, the government’s commitment to aerial spraying of the poppy crop ceased, but Bester has yet to convince the military brass that his program will work for the US Department of Defense.

As The Atlantic reported, Marine commandant General James Conway and his Colonel (ret.) Bob Charette are committed to finding alternative fuels to sustain military operations in the Middle East. But they aren’t convinced that poppies are the way forward.

But even for Charette, poppy’s political problems loomed too large. “It just doesn’t sound good, the United States using poppy oil,” Charette told me.

Even though poppy oil is far more efficient, and its production would directly aid the people of Afghanistan, the Marine Corps aren’t buying what Bester’s selling. But to their credit, they have instead agreed to mix 20% cottonseed oil with JP-8 jet fuel. Granted, this is a huge step forward for biofuel acceptance and utility, but it’s irksome to see preconceived notions once again trump reality, science, and data.

Photo via Flickr / Christopher_Hawkins

Brian Mossop is currently the Community Editor at Wired, where he works across the brand, both magazine and website, to build and maintain strong social communities. Brian received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Lafayette College, and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University in 2006. His postdoctoral work was in neuroscience at UCSF and Genentech.

Brian has written about science for Wired, Scientific American, Slate, Scientific American MIND, and elsewhere. He primarily cover topics on neuroscience, development, behavior change, and health.

Contact Brian at, on Twitter (@bmossop), or visit his personal website.