What does the future hold for avgas?

I’ve received several questions about the future availability of avgas. One reader noted that AOPA President Phil Boyer has warned that oil companies will stop producing avgas in five years or so. The reader went on to ask if he would be able to use auto gas in his aircraft or would he need to replace his engine.


I’ve received several questions about the future availability of avgas. One reader noted that AOPA President Phil Boyer has warned that oil companies will stop producing avgas in five years or so. The reader went on to ask if he would be able to use auto gas in his aircraft or would he need to replace his engine.

Most industry sources are unsure as to the future of leaded avgas. Their best “”guess”" is that leaded avgas will be available anywhere from five to 20 years. (Note: These guesstimates are plus or minus about 20 years). Boyer is giving the most pessimistic guess when he says five years.

There are three main factors that will determine the future of leaded avgas. The first is the Environmental Protection Agency. The present administration has shown no interest in outlawing lead. It is also doubtful that a change in administration would bring about any immediate change in law. The world has a lot more pressing problems than getting lead out of avgas. One must remember that the volume of avgas sold in the U.S. is less than three-tenths of 1% of the volume of motor fuel sold each day. In addition, the evidence that links the amount of lead emitted from the consumption of this small volume of fuel to any health hazard is very soft.

The second factor is availability. At the present time, there is only one plant in the world the produces tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) used in the production of leaded avgas. That plant is owned by Octel Corp. in the United Kingdom. Octel officials have stated that they plan to continue producing TEL for as long as there is a market for the product. There is also a plant in Russia that supposedly could be started up if the plant in the UK were to shut down.

The third factor is cost. The cost of leaded avgas will continue to rise. This is due to a number of factors. For example, the cost of transporting leaded avgas will continue to rise because avgas is the only leaded fuel in the distribution system. This means that it must be carefully segregated and cannot be shipped by pipeline as it would contaminate other products. Shipping by rail or over the road is significantly more expensive than by pipeline, and these costs will be reflected in the pump price. There are other costs associated with the use of leaded avgas. For example, all off-spec product must be sent to an approved disposal site versus downgrading to another product line. Also, used oil from aircraft contains more lead than is allowed by normal used oil disposal sites. In the future, it may cost almost as much to dispose of your used oil as the new oil costs.

The other part of the question is what will happen when leaded avgas goes away. The quick answer is that the fuel industry will offer an unleaded avgas that will satisfy almost all of the non-turbo/supercharged engines being operated today. The turbo- and supercharged engines will be able to operate on the fuel, but with some modifications.

Ben Visser is an aviation fuels and lubricants expert who spent 33 years with Shell Oil. He has been a private pilot since 1985. You can contact him at Visser@GeneralAviationNews.com.

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