Early last week my inbox starting filling with breathless news that Innospec, the world’s last producer of Tetraethyllead (TEL), the amazing chemical compound that gives avgas such excellent anti-detonant properties, is planning to end production in 2013.
Worse yet, according to an online article in Specialty Chemical News, the company had actually planned to stop making TEL in December of last year: “Originally the company, which is US-owned and does most of its manufacturing at Ellesemere Port, UK, intended to case production and sales of TEL at the end of 2012. However, it has now set a new deadline of the end of this year and recently told shareholders it would seek to ‘maximize the cash flow’ from sales.”
Eventually word must have gotten back to Innospec that some people were near apoplectic over the news, despite the fact that your bloggers have been warning about the inevitable end of TEL production since our earliest articles, for instance “How you can prepare for the end of 100LL” from May 17, 2010.
Innospec issued a quick statement to its customers by mid-week, with the following:
“To allay concerns which continue to circulate in the General Aviation (GA) sector regarding the availability of TEL-B for 100LL Avgas, Innospec are once again issuing this Information Update to reiterate our continued, long-term commitment to manufacture and supply TEL-B for use in aviation gasoline.”
The statement does mention the ultimate end of TEL production in its final sentence: “We reiterate that we have no current plans to cease the manufacture or supply of TEL-B and, whilst there is continued demand for 100LL avgas, we will continue to support the industry during the phase out of the product.”
It is hard to criticize the company’s intention now to “maximize the cash flow” since, with their monopoly on TEL production, we have zero alternatives — other than mogas — at this time. As our predictions for aviation fuel in 2013 described, it is not only Innospec we need to worry about, but the avgas producers who use TEL. In a market that has been declining by 3% annually for many years, and given the fact that TEL will indeed one day disappear, how many producers of leaded avgas will we have by the end of 2013?
The answer is suggested in a comment made by General Aviation News blogger Ben Visser in October 2012 in his article “Why does 100LL cost so much?”. Mr. Visser spent most of his 33 year career at Shell as an aviation fuels and lubricants expert. The final sentences in his article should give us all good reason to be concerned over the future of avgas production: “About 20 years ago when it was necessary to upgrade our lead injection system, I worked on a study to accurately assess these costs and add it to the cost of 100LL. The result? We stopped producing 100LL.” It’s true — according to Visser, Shell Aviation, one of the largest suppliers of avgas in the U.S., stopped making 100LL two decades ago and has purchased it from unbranded refiners since.
There have been some rumors that there exists a Chinese producer of TEL and that we have nothing to fear should Innospec end production. The company I represent, U-Fuel, is deeply involved in the fuel equipment business in China and is assisting the Chinese government in establishing General Aviation facilities. From what I understand, the small amount of avgas that is used in China is all imported. The primary fuels there are mogas and Jet-A.
While Innospec’s reassuring statement does indeed allay some concerns, it is a clear shot across the bow for all those who think that having all our eggs in one basket is a safe position for General Aviation. Can we afford to wait for the next shot?