Here’s the bottom line: 100LL is going away.
“Don’t fool yourself,” warned Alan Klapmeier, co-founder of Cirrus Aircraft. “The industry hoped 100LL would survive, but it is going away.”
What does that mean for you?
That’s what the industry and federal agencies are trying to figure out now.
The demise of 100LL was a hot topic at this year’s AOPA Aviation Summit. It was discussed during the opening general session, as well as in several forums throughout the show. While a lot of uncertainty exists about the future of aviation fuel, one thing is certain: A change is coming.
“And we will be ready for it,” said Rhett Ross, president of Teledyne Continental Motors, who noted the company has tested “all different types of fuels.”
It’s also a top priority at Lycoming Engines, where officials warn that this is one of the most complicated issues facing GA today.
“Be wary of the five-minute sound bite,” said Michael Kraft, senior vice president. “We have just one shot at this, so we need to make the right decision.”
“Certification costs in time and money are such that the industry can only afford to make this change once,” added Earl Lawrence, vice president of industry and regulatory affairs for the Experimental Aircraft Association. “Whatever change we make, it better be right. We need to move deliberately.”
But why do we need to change?
A LITTLE HISTORY
Tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) had been added to fuel since the 1920s. After it was identified as a neurotoxin, it began to be phased out in the 1970s. In 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated that it be gone by 1995. “It is considered one of the EPA’s biggest successes,” said Glenn Passavant, director of the EPA Nonroad Center.
Through lobbying, avgas was exempt from that mandatory phase out because the aviation industry said it just wasn’t ready.
“Avgas isn’t mogas — it’s anything but that. It is made in specialty batches and transported separately. It’s the only fuel with TEL added at the terminal,” he added, noting that it’s an important ingredient to increase octane, which prevents knocking. “It’s especially important to higher compression engines. When you need that octane, you need that octane.
That said, “20 years is a long time to not have a solution,” Passavant noted.
Time is officially running out. New national air quality standards are set to take effect soon, while the EPA is expected to make a finding on a three-year-old petition from the Friends of the Earth that claims avgas endangers the public health and welfare. “The petition requires the EPA to take action,” he said.
He estimates findings from the EPA’s investigation will result in rulemaking in the next 12 to 18 months, while the agency is looking at the “2016-2017 time frame” for a final solution. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said.
That’s an understatement. As the EPA investigation continues, the aviation industry is searching for an alternative fuel, as well as developing engines that will fly safely on that fuel, whatever it is.
The big concern for the engine manufacturers are not the new engines — they know they can develop those. It’s the existing fleet that cause for worry, according to TCM’s Ross.
Making sure the existing fleet isn’t grounded by the demise of 100LL is the focus of the Future Avgas Strategy & Transition Plan — known as FAST — which is being developed to determine how the industry will get from “where we are today to the new fuel,” Passavant said.
The plan, expected to be complete this year, studied the viability of potential fuels, including low-octane 87-89 mogas — which was determined to be unacceptable — mid-octane UL94, which would require a lot of engine modifications and result in a loss of performance, and high octane synthetic or biofuels, such as the one being developed by Swift Fuels.
“That is very promising,” he said. “It is the equivalent — or better — than 100LL, but it is still in development, so it’s not available. Also, there’s no infrastructure, so it’s a complete uncertainty.”
That’s why the industry keeps coming back to UL94, which would require “some minor changes” to how aircraft owners operate, as well as some modifications. Those modifications could range from something simple, like a belt-on ignition, with a price tag of $5,000 to $10,000, to a requirement for electronic controls, which come with price tags up to $30,000, according to Passavant. “There also may be a portion of the fleet that can’t be modified,” he warned.
UL94 would be the easiest replacement for 100LL as the distribution structure is in place and it can be “more easily certified, which is an important point,” TCM’s Ross said.
But will it be compatible with your engine?
“There’s been substantial testing in low-compression engines,” Ross said. “Some will need just minor modifications — some changes could be just a change to the POH. For most normally aspirated engines, if 100LL went away today, they could be converted.”
There are some engines, however, that will require substantial — read expensive — modifications.
The assessment of UL94 continues, especially in the areas of performance and certification. “It will affect operating cost and range,” Passavant said.
So what’s next? A lot of work for everyone involved.
A fleet impact assessment is needed, as well as a transition plan. Then the modifications will have to be developed and certified — and installed and paid for.
Meanwhile, the industry also has to continue developing new engines and new fuels.
All this so we can “keep ’em flying,” said the EAA’s Lawrence.
“This is really, truly here,” he said. “I feel like the boy who cries wolf, because I’ve been saying this is coming for 20 years now. What’s different now is that the EPA and FAA say it is going away.”
What’s taken so long, he said, is that when one problem is solved — a fuel is identified that will get an engine to run safely — another pops up — like “how are we going to make it work in the distribution system?” he said. “There’s a lot bigger picture here. That’s what we’re struggling with.”
EAA’s position is that it will support as many alternative fuels as possible, to ensure that a safe fuel is available — and perhaps more important — affordable.
Another important point: “No one says we must go to a zero lead fuel,” said the EPA’s Passavant. “If there are going to be multi-billion dollar effects, there must be another way to do it. Let’s come up with a creative solution.”
Thinking about fuel is a whole new ball game for the FAA, added Mark Rumizen, a reciprocating engines/fuels specialist with the agency. “We had one fuel, historically, and airplanes and engines were designed and optimized to operate on 100LL. We didn’t have to think about fuel certification.”
When the EAA and others started developing autogas STCs, the emphasis was still on making the fuel fit the engines, he noted.
“But with the unleaded fuels and Swift Fuel, we’re working backwards,” he said. “It creates a challenge. We have to think differently.”
The FAA is depending on ASTM to develop fuel specifications, he said, adding the industry should look for a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in 2010.
Meanwhile, the FAA’s 2011 budget includes funding for research on alternative fuels for GA. The agency also is working with the X-Prize Foundation to develop a contest for alternative fuels. “That should help spur development in this area,” he said.
WHAT IS SWIFT FUEL?
Swift Enterprises, Ltd. is developing an unleaded 100LL replacement fuel, called 100SF, that exceeds the energy content and octane number of 100LL, according to company officials. The new fuel contains two chemical components that, when mixed together, meet or exceed most performance parameters of 100LL. Because of this, 100SF requires minimal engine modification to run in the current GA fleet.
100SF can be produced from any organic matter that contains sugar of cellulose, company officials add.
For more information: SwiftEnterprises.net.