One Thursday afternoon in September 2005, Swift Enterprises founder John Rusek was flying home from a business meeting when he turned to his pilot, Jon Zuilkowski, and asked if he was ready to expand his role in the company. Without hesitation, Zuilkowski said he wanted to search for an alternative to avgas.
“One of his professors at Purdue University had told him that leaded avgas was going away and he wanted to get ahead of the problem to make sure his kids could fly and fly affordably,” recalled PJ Catania, a Swift Fuels aerospace engineer, following a forum on the new fuel at this summer’s AirVenture.
Just 72 hours after that conversation, Zuilkowski and other Swift Fuels employees were in the lab Monday morning, starting the research that would ultimately lead to Swift Fuels 100SF, a direct replacement for 100LL.
The small company, based at Purdue Research Park near the Indiana university, recruited former oil company researchers, biomass production engineers, and other professionals to help develop the fuel. About 1/3 of the 16-member staff are pilots and/or aircraft owners.
The sustainable fuel is not petroleum-based, but rather can be made from any “biomass,” such as corn, sugar beets, sorghum — whichever happens to be cheapest, Catania said.
The process to make the fuel is similar to that used to make ethanol, but the final product has no alcohol or ethanol in it.
The proprietary process converts the biomass to a fuel with just two components. The fuel, which has a Motor Octane Rating of 104.9, was submitted last month to ASTM for approval. Along with that submission were reports from a variety of companies that have been involved in testing the fuel, including Lycoming, Teledyne Continental Motors, Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft, Avfuel and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Embry-Riddle has been testing the fuel in a Seminole for the past year. Testing started with five hours of ground runs — hot starts, cold starts, etc. — and when no major problems occurred, advanced to taxiing and run-ups, reported Mikhael Ponso, an experimental test pilot at ERAU’s research center. Eventually the plane was taken up and put through extensive in-flight testing. “After 25 hours, we flew it to Sun ‘n Fun, where we flew in the showcase,” he said. “And we flew it here.”
Ponso reported that on the way to Oshkosh, he stopped to refuel, putting “a little” 100LL in the right tank, while the Swift Fuel was in the left tank. “I noticed the fuel flow was 10%-15% better on the Swift Fuel.”
Swift Fuel can be mixed with 100LL in any combination and still remain in spec, according to officials. Once approved, the fuel will be given a distinct color to differentiate it from JetA and 100LL. The fuel also has a distinct smell — one man at an Oshkosh forum compared it to dirty socks — but the smell is lighter than either dirty socks or petroleum-based fuels.
Swift officials hope to get approval for the fuel in the next year to year and a half. The company is in the process of striking a deal with a producer who can pump out 50,000 gallons a day. “At this facility, there exists the capacity to cover the entire GA market in about a month,” Catania said, noting GA uses about 308 million gallons of fuel each year — “not a large amount, but it’s important to a large number of people.”
Also important is keeping the cost affordable. Swift Fuels officials see the fuel costing no more than 100LL.
Another important point: 100SF can fall right into the present distribution channels. FBOs won’t need to add a second pump or make any changes to their existing fuel system, Catania said, adding the company has already reached an agreement with major distributors to distribute the fuel.
What about airplane owners? There will be a few changes needed. “The POH will have to be slightly rewritten,” he said. “And the fuel is slightly heavier, so it will affect weight & balance calculations.”
On the plus side, the fuel offers an 8%-15% boost in volume energy, researcher-speak for added mpg.
An educational campaign will be necessary to let aircraft owners know about the new fuel and what it means to them, coming from the FAA and the alphabet groups, including AOPA and EAA, he said.
THE BIG QUESTION
For aircraft owners, the big question is all about octane. “They say my engine needs lead and high octane for lubrication. With a minimum octane rating of 102.2, heading up to 105, “you never have to worry about that,” Catania said.
That’s because 100SF lubricates valve components. “Its lubricity is more like JetA,” he said, noting there is no lubricity standard for 100LL.
“We tried to get ahead and test 100SF like JetA,” he continued. “We did a long-term test at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center, putting 4,500 gallons of fuel through a Lycoming engine to simulate the wear and tear experienced at TBO. There was no more wear and tear on the internal engine components than 100LL — in fact there was less because there were no sticky lead deposits.”
For more information: SwiftEnterprises.com.