GAFuels bloggers hold seminars at Sun ‘n Fun

GAFuels blogger Dean Billing sends the following report on his three talks held last week at Sun ‘n Fun 2010:

There was a lot of media coverage of Sun ‘n Fun, but you will notice that none of it was about the fuel situation facing GA.  There was only one group of pilots that presented any information about the pending fuel crisis, the sponsors of this blog.  We presented three forums, one on Wednesday attended by about 20 people, one on Friday attended by about 30 people and one on Saturday attended by six people.  The slides for the presentation can be viewed at EOPC.com/SNF10.pdf. If you view the presentation, you will note a key set of two slides from a report on Avweb about the pending EPA termination of the waiver it has granted for the continuing use of TEL in avgas, which will result in the demise of 100LL.  We have reported about the EPA action several times on this blog, so it should come as no surprise to our readers.

A peculiar thing happened at the Friday presentation. During the question period after the presentation, a spokesman for Swift Fuels announced that they would be presenting a forum on Saturday about their progress in developing a drop in replacement for 100LL.  This was an unscheduled presentation, it did not appear on any of the published forum schedules prior to Sun ‘n Fun.  Swift Fuels did have a presence at Sun ‘n Fun through its joint research venture with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University based in Daytona Beach, Fla.  The plane testing Swift Fuel’s 100LL replacement was prominent in the ERAU display area.

I attended the Swift presentation and this is my understanding of what they said.  Their view of what they said may vary and I invite them to make comments to this blog about the progress of Swift Fuel.  The presentation was made by Charles Churchman, a consultant to Swift Enterprises, and PJ Catania, an engineer at Swift Enterprises who indicated that one of his primary responsibilities was to shepherd the new product through the ASTM approval process.  He indicated that Swift has been working on ASTM approval for a couple of years and that it would probably take another couple of years because biofuel avgas has never been done before so the avgas committee members are not familiar with it.

Churchman presented information on what it is going to take to get Swift Fuel into commercial production. He emphasized the low cost of the biomass feedstock compared to the cost of a barrel of oil. He indicated that two barrels of biofuel would result from one dry ton of biomass, and that at $40/ ton of dry biomass, a current representative cost, that would work out to about $0.50/gallon as the cost of feedstock.  Clearly the feedstock cost for gasoline today, with oil at $80/barrel is much higher,
in the $2+ range, and he indicated that as long as oil is above $60/barrel, the feedstock costs for Swift Fuel is much more competitive and will offset other higher costs of biofuel production, which he outlined next.

It is the cost of capital that is hindering development of Swift Fuel, according to Churchman.  Since the product is made by a proprietary biofuel process, new plants must be built from scratch.  At the present time Swift Enterprises is still working on capitalizing a pilot plant in the 1 million gallon/yr. (mgy) range.  Because of the costs of building large new plants and the inherent risks in new processes and the costs of distribution, Churchman has projected that initially Swift Fuel will cost in the $10/gallon range — and let me emphasize range — and will decline to more normal avgas costs as the industry matures and bigger plants come on line.  But the real problem is the timeline and conversion process to switch to Swift Fuel. Churchman indicated that it was very doubtful that Swift Fuel could ramp up production to the 300 million gallon range anywhere near the 2017 date that is often touted as to when the EPA will prohibit the use of lead in avgas.  He also indicated that the best way to convert to Swift Fuel would be to mix it with 100LL during the changeover time as production was ramped up and production costs reduced so that the economic impact could be mitigated.

Here are my views about this presentation: First, Swift Enterprises is using obsolete data. The demand for avgas is less than 200 million gallons/year and declining, especially the demand for 100 octane avgas.  There is no accurate data for how much 100 octane avgas is needed, but we do know that about 80% of the GA fleet could be using premium unleaded mogas or 94 UL, whenever the ASTM spec is approved, which will be this year. So the requirement for 100 octane fuel is small and declining.

Swift is a very small, private company of 16 people. They are not going to build plants and run them.  In my view this is one of the reasons that they do not have a commercial production facility up and running yet despite their projections at a presentation at AirVenture 2008 that I attended.  It appears that they are having trouble attracting venture capital for this a risky, unproven new biofuel process that has limited demand in a very high liability industry.

The market for a $10/gallon fuel, which would require a second tank and pump during the transition period, is economically implausible, so the idea was presented that the new Swift Fuel would be mixed with present production 100LL, in increasing ratio over a period of time, and since it is a drop-in replacement it is being tested this way.  Of course this scenario is fraught with liability issues and would require a completely new ASTM approval and some kind of blessing from the FAA and the industry, all issues brought up by the Swift presenters, and issues that require a lot of time.

I suppose if everyone is desperate enough when it is clear the leaded avgas is going to disappear this could happen, but is it any way to run general aviation? And why isn’t there more discussion by our aviation alphabet groups and media? We are betting the future of GA on some very small companies as outlined in our forum presentation at Sun ‘n Fun, including Swift, Virent or GAMI.  Since none of the aviation alphabets wants to support a two tank program on our airports, so that we could be using mogas today and 94 UL tomorrow when it is approved, we are apparently going to wait until the bitter end to see if the “single avgas” solution is going to fly and, if it doesn’t, scramble around to try to save GA when there isn’t any ethanol -ree mogas left, no 94UL in production and TEL is banned.

The GAfuels Blog is written by three private pilots concerned about the future availability of fuels for piston-engine aircraft. They are:

  • Dean Billing (Sisters, Ore.) – an expert on autogas and ethanol
  • Kent Misegades (Cary, N.C.) – an aerospace engineer and aviation journalist
  • Todd Petersen (Minden, Neb.) – former aerial applicator and owner of more than 150 Mogas STCs for aircraft

Comments

  1. Joe Rizzo -

    What does your response mean? Where was AOPA? The link you provide is only their standard hand wringing about how everyone must be careful so as to find a single solution for the replacement of 100 octane avgas before the EPA outlaws it. It pays no attention to the economic reality of TEL. There is only one plant making it, demand for it worldwide continues to decline, the EPA wants it out of all gasoline products, the number of aircraft needing it continues to decline, the refiners may decide that making and distributing leaded avgas just isn’t worth it. The reality is that the decision may have nothing to do with the EPA. Meanwhile the supposed growth area of GA, the Light Sport Aircraft fleet cannot get the gasoline they need at our airports, premium unleaded mogas, which could also be used in 80% of GA aircraft, because none of the aviation alphabets, including AOPA, supports a program to add airport infrastructure for a second pump for avgas. So when 94UL is approved by ASTM, which should happen this year, there will be no demand for it because there will be no place to put it on our airports.

    The point is that if TEL goes away, either because of economic reasons, or political reasons, and a replacement 100 octane avgas is not available from one of the three tiny companies trying to find the replacement, what is AOPA’s plan B? Do they even have one? Would they like to share it with us?

  2. Charles Churchman, P.E. says:

    Gentlemen:

    Since I am mentioned in this blog, I thought I would respond.

    First, Swift’s talks were unscheduled because we signed up late. My fault, won’t happen next year. We’ll check on the Oshkosh deadline for being in the program.

    Dean is not the only one scared about the 100LL cutoff. I’m a co-owner in a Turbo Dakota, and need 100LL. My company does a lot of environmental work, and the political background now is that there is a huge forward surge across the board in all areas in new EPA regulations with the new Adminstration – the same one that promised change. It IS happening in the EPA, and many of these new regulations will be costly. The EPA is set to promulgate the proposed regulation this month for 100LL phase out. George Braley of GAMI has the same concerns.

    What Dean did not mention is that I said that during the transition the addition of Swift fuels initially might add a little cost, if it started out at 5% for instance. 95% of the fuel would still be 100LL, so the high cost of the initial Swift addition would be “blended” out. For example, 5% at $10/gallon adds 50 cents, but 95% at $ 5.00 gallon is $ 4.75; so having a 5%/95% blend initially would add about $ 0.25/gallon to the price. All it takes for avgas from crude oil to go up $ 0.25/gallon is about a $ 10/barrel increase in crude. It’s gone up that much last month. Please bear in mind these are rule of thumb numbers.

    He also did not mention that the lower biomass feedstock price will ultimately make biomass aviation fuels cheaper than crude oil based fuels, and the timeline for that is probably less than 10 years. The long term break even point is probably between 60 and 75 dollars a barrel of crude. Crude right now is going for $ 85/bbl. Remember what it was last year – $ 140+ per barrel.

    Last, while Dean pointed out that most planes could use a lower octane fuel than 100LL, he failed to point out that the majority of the flight hours flown are by planes which require 100LL. Elimination of 100LL would result in the majority of GA flights being cancelled, particularly the commercial activities supporting the FBOs.

    Big technology changes in the petroleum and chemical industries usually take at least a full decade to implement. They are not like the electronics or software industries where big changes occur quickly. For instance, it usually takes two years to engineer and build the first commercial plant involving a new technology; you can speed the process up some, but it gets much more expensive quickly.

    One way to speed the process up substantially would be for the refineries currently making avgas to work with Swift to integrate the production into the existing refineries, using existing equipment. Swift has always planned on licensing the technology rather than producing the fuel, since as Dean points out, they are small and best at technology development, anyway.

    Much of Swift’s process uses conventional refinery technologies, and the cost savings there could be very substantial. The time savings for implementation could be positively affected this way, too. Since it is a drop in replacement, the distribution system could be used as is. Anybody out there who can assist with this would be warmly welcomed at this point!

    Last, the good news for the future was overlooked. Swift Fuel reduces fuel consumption from 8-15% from 100LL, meaning your range will go up by that much. This has been demonstrated conclusively. Moreover, Swift can produce 115/145, which means in the future new engines could be built to even further reduce fuel consumption by going to higher compression ratios.

    Throwing around the words “risky” and “unproven” is very counterproductive. Swift 100SF has been approved as a test fuel by the FAA after hundred of hours of engine testing. Swift people, in my opinion, are too carefully conservative in their comments about how well the fuel did in the testing. It did better than 100LL.

    I’m looking forward to no more lead sludge in my prop governor screwing up my run up cycling of the constant speed prop!

    Risky? If you know the chemistry, the components in Swift fuel are already in avgas. The only difference is Swift Fuel focuses on two of the best components, and eliminates the rest.

    I could go on, but you should get the point. I’ve been designing plants to make chemicals for almost 40 years, and I got my ticket in 1974. I consider it to be a rare priviledge and honor to be able to have the opportunity to help ensure fuel for all us truly free Americans, while at the same time we get the lead out.

    Regards,

    Charlie Churchman, P.E.
    c.churchman@iaeinc.com

  3. Al Uhalt says:

    A good summary. I was not aware that TEL stands to be banned in 2017. I think that will very likely happen. In the developmental, approval, production and distribution process necessary to get a suitable alternate to 100LL out to the flying public, there is precious little time remaining. The “other solution,” that of developing new engines that can properly use unleaded fuel have the same time-line requirements, but, in addition, will not help the hundreds of thousands of current conventional-engine GA aircraft owners and operators at all. I, for one, will be “mounting my steed” and charging into the fray to help move the process into high gear.

    I think many are counting on what has happened many times before in aviation, especially GA: that the changeover date for something new will be delayed and delayed and delayed again. We have seen this many times, but, I do not think this will happen this time with avfuel for at least two reasons: 1) The “tree-huggers” (environmentalists) are a very powerful political force in this country and will not let it happen with all kinds of concomitant derogatory publicity (true or not is immaterial) if we even try to delay the inevitable and 2) the declining consumption trend of 100LL will continue to the point that it will be either cost-prohibitive to the consumer or the refiners will cease production for the same reason and turn their resources to more lucrative products.

    We are already in great, if not imminent, danger of being run over by this juggernaut. We had best get our heads out of the sand and take action before we are all grounded and our engines begin rusting.

    Al Uhalt
    AOPA 53952
    EAA 279017

  4. Swift is not a solid or safe bet. They have been working on their solution since 2001 per their presentation. They have also had a 200 gallon per day plant up and running for nearly a year, per their press releases and their own website. Yet, they have no ability to hand over 10 gallons of REAL bio fuel. My uncle is very unhappy with his investment in their lack of progress.

    Geoff
    Avon, IN

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