A reality check on the future of 100LL

The future of avgas has been a hot topic for almost 20 years. I recently reviewed some of my past columns and found that I was not too far off in some of my past predictions, but I thought I would try to update them with a touch of reality.

The recent Super Bowl reminded me of a quote from Coach Vince Lombardi who, when asked if winning was the most important thing in football, replied, “It is not the most important thing, it is the only thing.” This quote can be paraphrased for today’s business types who run almost every major corporation and who believe that the next quarter profit statement is not their most important priority, it is their only priority.

Many years ago, the president of General Motors was asked to comment on the fact that when he started as CEO, GM had a 42% market share and eight years later when he retired it only had a 28% market share. He said something to the effect, “So? We were profitable every quarter,” and we all know how that turned out.

You are probably wondering what this has to do with the future of avgas. It has everything to do with it.

To start with, there’s a lot of talk about whether tetraethyllead (TEL), the lead antiknock additive, will be available in the future. There is only one company in the world that produces TEL, Innospec, which is based in England. There have been protests at the plant, as well as concerns that the market is getting smaller, which may lead to the company stopping production of the additive.

But, in reality, as long as there is a profit, it will produce the additive. And if it stops, there are plants in Russia and China that could be started up, for a price. I do not see 100LL going away because of a lack of TEL.

There is also concern that the number of 100LL producers keeps decreasing. In actuality, there were probably too many producers for the volume of business. If there is a business where one or two companies can easily produce all of the 100LL needed in the U.S., and there are five producers, then most of them will not be making an “acceptable” profit margin and may get out of the business. But as long as a few companies can make an “acceptable” profit, there will be a supply of 100LL to meet demand. The price, of course, will reflect the “acceptable” profit margin.

Is TEL going away? I have been answering that question for more than 25 years — and the answer is yes, some day. When is that day? That depends on the EPA and the FAA.

It is one of those vicious circle things. The environmentalists petition the EPA, which make a ruling, then the FAA realizes there is not a drop-in replacement, so they look at the liability and problems that could happen, so it cancels the EPA regulation. This upsets the environmentalists, who manufacture more data and the wheel goes round and round and, while the consultants get richer, the whole thing goes nowhere.

This whole mess is the main — or maybe the only — controlling factor in what will happen to 100LL. I know that the EPA has set a deadline for the removal of TEL from avgas. But, in politics, it is all about power and/or money. And a lot can change between now and then.

This can go either way. They may take the safe way out and let 100LL sales continue, which will only upset a few environmentalists. Or they may take the risk of removing the TEL and let the lawsuits and planes fall where they may. An airplane crash makes a great news story and would also make a really effective political ad.

So, in review, TEL will be available as long as we are willing to pay for it. 100LL will be available as long as it is legal to sell it, and we are willing to pay for it. Prices may go up — I put the may in there just to make you all feel good. And the outlawing of TEL is anyone’s guess.

I hope you all don’t think I am pessimistic, I am one of the most optimistic people you will every meet. But occasionally I like to throw a little reality into the mix just to confuse the pundits and soothsayers.

Comments

  1. says

    http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/avgas/archive/2013-05-28/

    2018 seems to be the line in the sand for AVGAS as we know it today.
    As a Shell Oil man, what is your thinking for the Price of any solution relative to older aircraft engines? It seems to me that designing engines to run on a defined fuel is going to be doable so that is not the issue.

    It is my understanding that even Jet A is undergoing changes that are insignificant to jets and turbines but will not be insignificant for diesel powered engines that also use Jet A. So, the Skylane diesel you purchased this year may get less hp in forthcoming years and that changes the capability of that aircraft. Could it be that this four place is not much better than a two place with same baggage?

  2. says

    Solutions need to be affordable. If I recall my business 101, that supply and demand dictates price. If there is only one supplier, sounds like GA may have a solution but it will be very expensive and who is going to distribute it?

  3. says

    Is there a single website that has facts about this topic of AVGAS? I have read a lot of different ideas, “facts” and opinions on this. It is hard for an aircraft owner or a potential buyer to know the truth. Should someone invest in an old technology, i.e. C-172 or such that burns AVGAS?

  4. says

    So, it is up to the EPA and the FAA. Why so. Why isn’t it up to the industry? Why is the industry not supporting efforts like Swift Fuel, which had to go to Germany? Why are we dependant on government for everything. Is this the way we want it to be? I certainly don’t.

  5. Sam says

    I am flying my Navajo having TIO540 engines on auto fuel after mixing 30 % MTBE in it.This increases the octane rating from 91 to 99.The engines are knock free.Any comment from the experts will be appreciated.

  6. Jan Laurier says

    Hi Ben, I like your thoughts about this, specially sins I am a colleague of you and still working for Shell. (25 years on the Pernis refinery and 7 years in upstream now). I am really amazed why there is no discussion about the real issue, aviation is way too expensive. And little innovation in GA that is.
    I wished there had been a Henry Ford in aviation. Then we would fly in comfort, safety and with relatively low environmental effects now.
    About getting rite of 100LL, does it need a continent like China that opens their airspace for private aviation and at the same time bans the use of TEL in the fuel? Another example? 10 years ago there were a couple of millions 2 stroke motopeds in Shanghai, now there are non. Why, simply the are forbidden and the punishments where increasing every year and are severe. Is it causing a problem no, because there are new techniques available.
    Adapt, innovate or face extinction, that also means taking risks, big risks but its necessary to survive as Darwin first explained. Now there are Diesel engines available, but the same stupid thing happens again, instead of making diesel fuel available at airports, we going to change the engines so it will run on Jet A1 fuel. Creating additional problems in the fuel system, especially in the high pressure pump, reducing the effectiveness of the engine, increasing fuel burn. But in aviation its normal?!
    .

    • says

      A Henry Ford in Aviation, would never survive today. The lawyers would eat him alive. This is why this country is strangled at every turn. You cannot do or invent anything without fear of being sued. Being sued is all it takes. It does not matter if you win or loose, because you lost the day you got sued.

  7. Mack says

    My O-540-B4B5 doesn’t need TEL. In fact, I’m grateful to be without the gray lead sludge in my crankcase, and to be without the lead bromides on my spark plugs.
    Why make a problem out of nothing?
    My insincere apologies to those of you flying WWII 2800 hp Bearcats or Korean era Skyraiders. You have the AOPA to keep the lead in your gas, so “keep on trucking”, as the hippie nutcases and environmentalists used to say in the sixties.

  8. John Drago says

    About 6 years ago I read an article written by a State of Florida publication what said Florida was investing 50 million into the production of ethanol. The article went further to say it costs $15 to produce 1 gallon of the product. Think about that, $15 a gallon to produce a product 10% of which goes into a gallon of real gas reducing the efficiency of that gallon by 2% of its energy. I heard on the news this week that the refineries were producing less ethanol at this time because of the lack of rain to grow the corn that is used to “grow” the ethanol that is required to produce the product. Let me see if I have this right. Gas prices are up because ethanol production is down because of the corn shortage created by the lack of rain on a product, production of which, is mandated by the government of a fuel that reduces the energy of the gas output when placed in an engine! Its gotta be Bush and the few Republicans in the Congress at fault.

  9. says

    Every thing is about greed for money. The government is in to everybodys business on every aspect of life. They shove it down our throat s. Ethanol is worse than gas alone in pollutants. I got this from a chemist who works for a major oil company.
    The MFG of this product is subsidize by the tax payer.
    The lead put out by piston engines in GA is like a drop of water in all the oceans combined.

  10. Edward Baker says

    If I understand correctly, most piston engines in the fleet can safely run on “unleaded” 100LL. About 70%. Why can’t we De-rate those engines requiring 100 octane, rewrite performance charts and solve the problem. I regularly operate at higher altitudes at less that 100% of engine performance and get along just fine. If we need a few more horsepower, increase the engine RPM within a tolerable range and (maybe) change out the prop. May not be practical, just a layman’s thought. . .

  11. says

    Excellent column, Ben. From what I read, Swift Fuels has a useable product in their UL 102, and are trying to get it produced and distributed. Hope this is actually true. If so, GA people and tree huggers may have to step up to keep it from being squashed by big oil and the ethanol lobby. We know TEL is nasty stuff. Dupont had some bad experiences in the 1920’s, came close to not commercializing it. As my flight instructors say “Get ahead of the plane, act like you own it!” We–GA people and tree huggers– should do the same for our fuel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *