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