Ben Visser is an aviation fuels and lubricants expert who spent 33 years with Shell Oil.
I recently received a question from reader Bill Blank asking whether there was more BTUs in higher octane fuels and if there was any reason to use a higher octane fuel if a vehicle ran knock free on a lower octane fuel. The simple answer is no.
I have received this question many times and the concept of more is always better is very ingrained in our minds. This was supported by an ad campaign for one of the major oil companies that ran about four decades ago. It showed a car running knock free on its regular gasoline, and the narrator asked the question: “If your car runs well on our regular, just think how well it will run on our super premium?”
For us technical people, the answer was, simply, it would run the same since octane rating is just resistance to knock. Therefore, if it did not knock on regular, increasing the octane would show no benefit. But to the general public who think more is always better, flawed logic would tell them that buying the more expensive premium fuel would give them better performance. The net result was increased profits for the oil company with no actual performance benefit for the consumer. The Federal Trade Commission and other oil companies finally complained and the ads were dropped, but the concept was cemented into the mindset of the motoring public.
Speaking of flawed logic, most of you have probably heard that an environmental group in California has filed a lawsuit against the EPA, some FBOs, and avgas suppliers. The basis of the lawsuit is that the EPA has not acted quickly enough to remove the lead from avgas. This has subjected people that work in the business and people who live near airports to undue health hazards from lead pollution, the environmentalist group contends. Their case is based on the logic that lead, if it gets into the bloodstream, is a health hazard, and lead is in 100LL, which is burned in aircraft, and then goes into the atmosphere, so it must be bad.
In a court that ruled on facts, they would have to prove that the lead in 100LL can and does end up in the bloodstream of people who work in the business and come in contact with the fuel, or people who live near GA airports. But to my knowledge, that data does not exist because the lead, especially after going through the combustion process, is not in a form that is readily ingested into the bloodstream.
But this is not that kind of court. The complainant’s lawyers will first find a judge who is more or less leaning toward their cause. Then the most important part is the jury selection. In a technical case like this, they will work very hard to seat the least educated people they can find on the jury. In that way, once the debate over the scientific data is presented, the jury will be completely snowed. Once they say tetra-ethyl lead, the entire jury will be lost and they will only hear that there is a poison in the bloodstream. They will also reason that big government is bad and big business is worse, so they must be on the wrong side and will rule for the complainant with absolutely no regard for any of the facts, which they do not understand anyway.
From there the case will go through the appeals process, so who wins and who loses? The big loser is GA aviation. These types of cases increase the negative image of GA and raise the risk that new rules will be passed prematurely that are not, shall we say, “completely tested.” These rules can risk the safety of many GA pilots and could really decrease the value of many aircraft.
The suit can’t really hurt the EPA because it is a government agency. And it may cost the oil companies a few million here and there. But guess what? The oil companies will just pass those costs on to the aviation consumer, if any are still left.
So who are the big winners? Well there will be no improvement for the general public. The people who work on the engines and are supposed to be at risk may lose their jobs. The environmentalist groups may get a few more donations because it looks like they are helping based on their flawed logic.
So there are no winners, only losers — oh wait, the lawyers will still get paid.
You can contact Ben at Visser@GeneralAviationNews.com