Aviation looking to move from low-lead to unleaded fuel

When the automotive industry took the lead out of gasoline, the aviation industry couldn’t follow suit.

There wasn’t an alternative fuel that would work in piston-powered airplanes.

Eventually, however, the general aviation industry must transition away from low-lead aviation fuel used by the world’s general aviation aircraft to an unleaded fuel.

That’s a challenge.

A lot of work has been done, but there’s a lot more work ahead, said Walter Desrosier, vice president of engineering and maintenance for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group.

The Federal Aviation Administration is leading the charge in finding a viable alternative fuel that can be used by most general aviation airplanes by the year 2018.

Companies, such as Swift Fuels, have been working on alternatives.

Finding an alternative is an issue because of environmental concerns. Lead ingested by humans can lead to mental and physical ailments and affect children’s development.

The No. 1 source of lead emissions in the U.S. today is general aviation aircraft, Desrosier said.

Twenty-three airports are currently being monitored to see how much lead gets out to the general community, Desrosier said.

In addition to environmental issues, availability is a problem.

Only one plant today supplies the additive tetra-ethyl lead, or TEL, to the Western world, he said.

Although it will take several years to transition to an alternative fuel, the issue must be addressed now, Desrosier said.

“We can’t sit back and wait to see what may happen,” he said. “We need to plan.”

Desrosier hosted a discussion on the issue in a presentation entitled “100LL: Get the Lead Out. Avgas’ Last Gasp.”

The presentation was held Wednesday at the Wichita Aero Club luncheon. Other participants included Jon Ziulkowski, chief operating officer of Swift Fuels, and Johnny Doo, vice president of engineering for Continental Motors.

The goal is to find a replacement fuel that can be a transparent, easy switch for pilots to make, Desrosier said.

“We’re confident it will be that way for a vast majority of the population,” he said.

There’s lots of work to do before that can happen.

Any alternative must go through extensive evaluation and testing on airplanes and their engines.

The impact on the plane’s performance, temperature, weight and other areas must be studied.

An alternative fuel’s cost and the impact to airports and fixed base operators and on fuel production and distribution must also be evaluated, he said.

The aviation industry is recommending that the FAA create a fuel development road map with the steps and information for the viability, assessment, qualifications and certification of the fuel and its deployment, Desrosier said.

Fuel producers, engine and airplane manufacturers and others must come together to identify and implement a plan.

There must be standardized testing for qualification and certification data of fuel that would be used.

FAA funding to work toward a solution must continue, Desrosier said.

Swift Fuel has been working on a high octane alternative to 100 low lead aviation fuel since 2006.

“We’re focused on this avgas problem,” said Ziulkowski of Swift Fuel.

Technology must assess more than whether the airplane’s engine will run or the propeller will turn, he said.

It must make sure any alternative fuel doesn’t replace leaded fuel with something more harmful to the environment and that it will work in the fuel trucks and their hoses and that it can be produced and distributed easily and in the required volumes, Ziulkowski said.

Swift Fuel is working on federal approval to use its alternative fuel in Cessna 172 piston airplanes.

It plans to begin flying and gathering data on its use in the next couple of months, Ziulkowski said.

Continental Motors has built 250,000 aircraft engines in the past 84 years, including engines for nearly 100,000 planes flying today.

The company has been working with alternative fuels and on building engines that will use them.

“We see this is going to be a big job,” Doo said.

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