A couple of years ago I created a website to sell aviation-related items that publicize flying on unleaded auto fuel, or mogas as we call it. One bumper sticker that I created has proven to be prescient, “What You Going To Do When the TEL Runs Out?” That date may be rapidly approaching.
While I was doing some research on how much TEL — tetraethyl lead — is needed to produce avgas, I found some interesting information about the future of TEL. If my calculations are correct, the U.S. uses maybe 106,000 gallons of TEL each yr. That was computed by taking the number of gallons in 2 grams of TEL, because the maximum amount of TEL in 100LL is 2 grams/gallon, although we know now that some refineries are using maybe 19% less TEL by making 100 VLL, and multiplying that by a maximum of 200 million gallons/yr. of avgas production, which is probably generous, but surely declining. 2 grams = 0.0005283441025 gal, so multiply that by 200,000,000 gallons of gasoline = 105669 gallons of TEL. I invite readers to check my math or tell me where I am wrong about the amount of TEL needed for annual avgas production.
Then I went looking on the Internet for the annual production of TEL by Innospec, the only company in the world that produces it. Haven’t found the number yet and I doubt that it is published anywhere, but I found something much more interesting in this report. Down near the bottom of the page it says: “Innospec stated in its 10-K Securities and Exchange Commission report of 2010 that the company expected all sales of TEL for automobile gasoline use to cease in 2012, thus suggesting that its stated plans and the objectives of The LEAD Group were not far apart. The NCP has learned that Innospec now believes sales may continue into 2013.”
According to Innospec, TEL is only made for auto fuel production in a few third world countries and for avgas production. When Innospec stops making TEL for auto fuel sometime in 2013 that means that the only user of TEL will be the minuscule amount of avgas production left in the world, a steadily declining market, which Innospec publicly admits … great business model.
Of course as the demand declines, they can charge any amount they want because they already are a monopoly. Thank goodness TEL makes up such a tiny amount of the recipe for avgas, and as the refiners have already proven, they can make 100 octane avgas with even less TEL than the maximum 2 grams/gallon allowed by the ASTM D910 spec for 100LL, thus resulting in 100VLL.
What is interesting about this whole matter concerns The LEAD Group. It turns out The Lead Education and Abatement Design (LEAD) Group Incorporated has been trying to get Innospec to stop making TEL for auto fuel for the last couple of years. You can learn about their activity here, a report that includes a historic timeline about the use of TEL in aviation fuel at the very end of the report. So, it turns out that it is not just the Friends of the Earth (FOE) that is trying to get the lead out, there are other organizations that are leaning on government agencies around the world to curtail the production of TEL.
When TEL production for autos cease this year or in 2013, what do you believe the real prospects are for continued production of TEL for more than a couple of more years? What will happen if some unforeseen disaster befalls the only plant in the world that makes TEL in the mean time? This leads to some interesting questions that I have not heard the aviation alphabets, the ARC, the FAA nor the EPA address:
- What will really happen to 100LL avgas worldwide when Innospec stops making TEL? It is not if they stop making it, it really is when they stop making it, even though Innospec claims they will make TEL for aviation for as long as we need it.
- How much TEL is stored at refineries? Do they keep a six-month supply, a one-year supply, which is only 106,000 gallons in the U.S., or a longer supply?
- Does TEL have a specific shelf life?
I invite our readers to answer these questions if they really know. If we knew the answers to these questions we would have a reasonable handle on the real event horizon for the end of 100LL and have a better understanding on how much time is really left to find the magic unleaded 100 octane replacement.
If the event horizon is short it would be obvious to everyone in GA that we need a Plan B, which is something I have never heard discussed openly. Why not? It is obvious that the future of 100LL avgas is probably not going to be determined by the FOE/EPA litigation, but by the economics of producing TEL or some other successful legal challenge to Innospec.
Contributed by Dean Billing
The GAfuels Blog is written by two private pilots concerned about the future availability of fuels for piston-engine aircraft: Dean Billing, Sisters, Ore., a pilot, homebuilder and expert on autogas and ethanol, and Kent Misegades, Cary, N.C., an aerospace engineer, aviation sales rep for U-Fuel, and president of EAA1114.
People who read this article also read articles on airparks, airshow, airshows, avgas, aviation fuel, aviation news, aircraft owner, avionics, buy a plane, FAA, fly-in, flying, general aviation, learn to fly, pilots, Light-Sport Aircraft, LSA, and Sport Pilot.