Getting the lead out

I received an e-mail from a gentleman who is a “small investor” in Swift Fuels, a group associated with Purdue University working to produce an unleaded, high-octane aviation fuel that can be made from almost any sugar-containing plant matter.

He asked that I update people on Swift’s progress, as well as took me to task for my past statements questioning some of their figures and conclusions.

First, an update. Swift Fuels has continued to test its product in engines at its facility, at the FAA test lab and at the manufacturers. It also has begun flight evaluations. As I understand it, the fuel has met all of the octane requirements and has performed well in all tests to date. I applaud their efforts and feel that they are doing an excellent job and wish them the best.

I do however have a few problems with the program.

One is cost. The investor pointed out that even though the fuel they are testing cost $60 per gallon to produce, “they are very confident that their projection of $1.80 per gallon, once production is started, is accurate.” I have not seen all of their cost analysis but, based on my experience, their figure is very low.

The gentleman goes on to state, “Swift fuel has been tested to show that it delays knocking in engines beyond that protection provided by 100LL. An added feature is that they could make 160 octane, if someone wanted it, for their Warbird or race plane – without lead!”

I look at this statement with mixed emotions. On one hand, the 160 octane comment was definitely extracted from the hinterland. But the fact that they are running test programs with the engine manufacturers, the FAA and other independent tests indicates that they are doing their due science. The problem here is the effect going to an unleaded fuel will have on the existing GA fleet.

I recently was talking to an engine rebuilder who had an O-200 returned with bad exhaust valve guides less than 100 hours after overhaul. Different cylinders were installed and the engine put in service and again returned with bad guides after less than 100 hours. It was then discovered that the operator had burned only unleaded fuel. After installing a different set of cylinders, the plane was run for the first 100 hours with at least 25% 100LL, and the engine ran fine.

Getting the lead out sounds simple, but it is not. The problem here is with the EPA. Regulations to get the lead out will cause a significant increase in risk and cost for a lot of pilots who will develop engine problems or have to pay huge sums of money to “upgrade” their aircraft.

Unfortunately, I doubt that people will be able to sue the government for a stupid regulation — but the lawyers will be able to sue engine shops and manufacturers because their engines did not operate properly on a fuel that they were not designed to run on.

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

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