And then there were 10…As oil refineries stop producing avgas, what’s the future hold for us?

As oil refineries stopproducing avgas, what’sthe future hold for us?


As oil refineries stopproducing avgas, what’sthe future hold for us?

Adrian Lineberger, like many aircraft owners, is worried.

“”I fly a turbocharged Cessna 206,”” he wrote recently in an email. “”I was just wondering if you had any new thoughts on the fuel situation over the next five to 10 years?

“”I think the industry is starting to see the writing on the wall as evidenced by production diesel engines on newer GA aircraft and the retrofit companies in Germany,”” he continued. “”Do you still think avgas will be here for a while or is it time to shop for diesel conversions? Will unleaded or alcohol-based fuels be a viable option in turbocharged engines with appropriate conversions? I don’t want to own an expensive aircraft that suddenly becomes obsolete with the next world disaster.””

I understand Adrian’s concern. At the present time there are 11 refineries in the U.S. that produce leaded avgas. It appears that Shell Oil soon will stop producing leaded avgas at one of its Louisiana refineries. This is a normal business decision based on the need for high octane unleaded components, normally used in avgas, for blending in auto fuels. Don’t forget to factor in the high costs of operating a leading facility and keeping the leaded fuel totally separate from the rest of the products.

Other companies in the area have excess capacity, so I would not expect any negative impact on supply and cost in the short term.

But what about the long term?

The long term availability and cost of leaded avgas is still a great uncertainty. I was a little surprised last year that avgas prices did not go up more. Avgas is only 3/10 of 1% of the fuel market. As such, it is entirely at the mercy of the needs and demands of the auto fuel business. If the demand for high octane auto fuel goes up, the cost of avgas will go up significantly.

Now to my crystal ball for a look at the future: I see a cloud. It is called politics. Right now the war in Iraq is the main topic of political discussion. However, global warming and the environment are starting to get some play in the media. I am definitely in favor of protecting our environment and leaded avgas should not have any significant negative effect on global warming or the environment. But there is concern that once the government starts imposing new regulations, it will go after anything that even sounds bad.

So what changes will be made in the next five to 10 years? Probably very few. I think the diesel engine effort will grow significantly. This will be especially strong in the third world market where good quality leaded avgas is very difficult to find. Diesels also will see inroads in the commercial market. About 80% to 90% of the piston-powered aircraft flying today could be operated on a high octane unleaded fuel. However, the other 10% to 20% consume about 80% of the avgas used. Many of these high usage aircraft may be converted to diesel fuel for economic reasons.

If this happens, the need for leaded avgas will decline and eventually become unprofitable to produce.

But I do not see that happening in the next 10 years.

My best guess as to what will happen in the next 10 years in the aviation fuels business is:

? Leaded avgas will be generally available in the U.S., but at an increased cost;

? Electronic fuel injection and ignition controls will become more commonplace;

? Unleaded conventional avgas may become available that will meet the requirements of almost all of the nation’s piston aircraft, with engine modifications needed for some;

? Alcohol will not be recommended for airplanes ? or their pilots.

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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