Our Expert's Take on the Future of Fuel
November 17, 2013
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  • Every fall I help local farmers haul grain to the elevator. This year we had a very good harvest and the lines at the elevator were long. To pass the time, I brought along magazines from this summer to read and reread. I noted that every magazine had at least one article about the future of aviation gasoline. Since my byline in General Aviation News says I am an aviation fuels expert, I thought maybe I should address the subject and shed some light on it.

    Now that harvest is over, I have also cruised the Internet and found a lot more “information” about the subject. So what has changed since my last column on this subject over a year ago? In reality, nothing.

    The question then arises as to the meaning of all of these articles if nothing has changed. Do the writers not understand the “show?” That may be part of it.

    For example, the head of Lycoming’s effort stated, “If you throw us a fuel, we can tell you within two weeks if it will work.” This indicates to me that they are testing a fuel only as to whether it will run knock free in their test stand engine.

    What about all of the other engines in all types of conditions? What about fuel handling and compatibility with all rubber and plastic components? What will it do to a rag-covered aircraft when spilled on it? The questions go on and on. I think that most of the authors are writing from the viewpoint of what do we want and not from the viewpoint of what we can really expect.

    Now I hope you do not think that I know all the answers, because I don’t. Just ask my wife. She could talk for several hours about what I do not know and never repeat herself. But I have worked for an oil company for more than 30 years and I understand a little about how they work.

    The biggest problem with these articles is that they do not address the liability issue. Writing about future fuels and not discussing liability is like talking about childhood obesity and not mentioning poor diet or lack of exercise. You can put a lot of information forward, but you may not understand the whole problem.

    I hate to sound like a broken record, but liability in the GA world is the most important controlling factor in what a company will or will not do. In this column, I would like to rate the future fuel options from a refiner’s point of view.

    A little drum roll please: The number one choice by refiners is 100LL. Now I know that 100LL has received some “bad press” but it is the only fuel that meets the needs of all of the GA community and it has experience. I know about spark plug fouling in LSA and old 80/87 engines, but that is a problem that people are aware of. And it works with the fuel distribution system. Let us say we have learned how to live with it. In general aviation it is always the fear of the unknown  that concerns everyone the most.

    The second choice is a 94 unleaded fuel. This is basically 100LL without the lead. The beauty of this fuel is it is a proven commodity. It works in all of the distribution systems, it does not cause any aircraft fuel system problems and the refiners are all familiar with how to produce it — and the octane rating is well below that of 100LL. This means that every aircraft will need to be more or less re-certified on the fuel. This removes the liability of knock-related problems from the refiner and places it on the engine manufacturer or modifier. This is a huge difference.

    The third choice is to get out of the business. Shell and Exxon-Mobil have partially removed themselves from the business, and others may follow. If you do not believe this, remember that Shell scraped a complete refinery in the middle of the world’s largest gasoline market (LA) just because the liability risk was too great.

    Finally the fourth choice is one of the new 100 Motor Octane unleaded fuels. For this discussion I have lumped Swift Fuels, GAMI and all other candidates into one choice. There are several problems with this choice. The biggest is that these fuels are being sold as a direct replacement for 100LL and that they will meet ALL of the performance perimeters of 100LL. Not some, or maybe similar, but that they meet all of them. This puts refiners into the world of “the fear of the unknown.”

    Until you put these fuels out into the market, no one knows how they will work in all of the fuel systems and aircraft that are out there under all types of conditions. When the industry went from 100/130 high lead to 100/130 low lead, the average lean rating went up several numbers and the average rich rating went down several numbers. The result was that we received a lot of knock complaints on the new fuel from end users.

    Now, if one changes from 100LL to an unleaded 100 lean rating fuel on which you really cannot accurately measure the rich rating, we are expecting it to run knock free in every application and under all types of conditions. In addition, we lose the “lead bonus,” which has shown that leaded fuels have less knocking tendencies in the field than unleaded fuels of the same octane rating. And we are expecting the new fuel to perform as well as 100LL in all fuel systems and aircraft with no problems or issues.

    If it does cause a problem, there is an army of lawyers just waiting to sue the refiners and get into their deep pockets to share the wealth. Maybe, just maybe, this may explain why none of the oil companies are waiting in line to jump into this business.

    You may have noted that I did not include auto gas in the choices. That is a subject for another column.