20 October 2008

Avgas - The Next Nail?

We have discussed the Future of Avgas before in this blog, and some of the predictions made there started coming true on 15 October 2008. That was the day that United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed the environmental standards for lead contamination from 1.5 microgram/m3 to 0.15 microgram/m3.

The new standard requires that the sources of lead in the United States, which includes lead smelting, airplane fuels, military installations, mining and metal smelting, iron and steel manufacturing, industrial boilers and process heaters, hazardous waste incineration and production of batteries reduce their emissions by October 2011. The EPA has named avgas as one of the most "significant sources of lead".

The new rules aren't clear as to exactly how non-industrial sources of lead, like those from burning avgas, will be impacted.

Most pilots see this as a bad thing, as this new standard will probably mean that 100LL will no longer be available to be used in the USA after 2011, but the story is more complex than that. The tetra-ethyl lead that is used in leaded avgas is a neurotoxin (i.e "brain poison"), as are all its combustion products. Those stories that you may have heard that the tail-pipe products of leaded gasoline combustion are harmless are not correct, all compounds of lead are toxic to humans.

So what does lead in the environment do? Mostly it causes mental retardation in children as well as cardiovascular disease and death in people of all ages. New research has conclusively shown that even in very low levels environmental lead causes retardation in children. In fact the EPA's own research shows that the acceptable level shouldn't be the new 0.15 microgram/m3 standard, but more like 0.02 microgram/m3, which is seven and a half times lower.

The last round of environmental standards imposing the old level of 1.5 microgram/m3 came about in 1978 and that resulted in the end of leaded auto fuel. Why wasn't unleaded avgas invented back then? The answer to that question is complex, but the short answer is that it was, sort of. A 100 octane lead-free fuel hasn't been invented, and may in fact be impossible, but a new standard was developed for 82UL. Aircraft designed for the old minimally leaded 80/87 avgas could run on 82UL, but it was never put into production. As long as 100LL was still being made no refiner was interested in making 82UL. Also 82UL will only work for those low-compression engines that can use an 82 octane fuel. For example, you can't run a Cirrus SR22 with its high-compression Continental IO-550-N 310 hp engine on 82UL, so it is not a complete solution.

Essentially because 100LL wasn't caught in the old lead standards in 1978, there was no major motivator for the fuel and engine makers to come up with either an unleaded high octane fuel or to find another technical solution. There are some possibilities on the horizon, like Unison's LASAR ignition system that will allow some high compression engines to use premium auto fuel, but in general we are still dependant on 100LL here in 2008 and just accept the lead it is putting into the environment. We probably should have spent the last 30 years developing real solutions, because it has been obvious since 1978 that leaded avgas's days are numbered.

This is all happening in the USA, how does all this affect Canada? Well 100LL is all made in the USA and shipped to Canada. So if they stop making it, it won't be available here. The Canadian volumes of avgas used are tiny and won't justify starting up Canadian refining of this difficult to make (because of the lead) product.

The key question is then, should we try to fight these environmental concerns to keep flying on 100LL? Some organizations, like AOPA, argued during the hearings before the standard was changed that 100LL should be retained, saying that "any changes that would force an immediate change in the current composition of avgas would have a direct impact on the safety of flight and the very future of light aircraft in this country."

Essentially we have a choice here: keeping flying on 100LL and accept that it will cause mental retardation in children or stop using 100LL and find something else. Which is the right thing to do?

The EPA seems to have made their choice.

Additional reading:







Adam Hunt said...

National Air Transportation Association President Jim Coyne recently added some comments on the future of 100LL saying that due to the environmental impact of lead that he expects 100LL to be phased out in the next few years.

Story on AvWeb

Adam Hunt said...

It is great to see that some people are moving forward with alternatives to 100LL.

EAA recently carried a story about Len Johnson who, on November 2nd 2008, completed his US coast to coast flight in his Cozy Mark IV, flying the whole trip on biodiesel fuel.

Johnson has started a campaign he calls "Get The Lead Out" with the aim of getting the US off 100LL in the next ten years.

While I don't believe biodiesel is the ultimate right answer, this is a good start to finding long-term ways of keeping flying in a world where 100LL will not be available at some point in the future.

chephy said...

It would be a bit of inconvenience to replace 100LL with something else, but I'm glad it's been done. Polluting the environment with lead is unacceptable, and even if it is going to cause me, a pilot, some money loss and inconvenience, I'll still be happy when 100LL gets phased out. I don't want the next generation to grow up retarded, and I don't want lead in my own system either.

Adam Hunt said...

It looks like the US EPA is on the move on this issue again.

"A notice from the Environmental Protection Agency concerning the future of 100LL is expected to be published within the next few weeks, EAA's Doug Macnair, vice president for government relations, told AVweb on Tuesday... "This action will describe the lead inventory related to use of leaded avgas, air quality and exposure information, additional information the Agency is collecting related to the impact of lead emissions from piston-engine aircraft on air quality and will request comments on this information," according to the EPA Web site. The ANPRM is not expected to set a final date for the end of 100LL, but will likely seek input from the industry and the public to develop a transition plan so the fuel can be phased out, Macnair said."

Leaded Avgas Issue Moving To Front Burner

Adam Hunt said...

There is more news from the US EPA on this issue:

EPA Advances 100LL Rulemaking Process

Adam Hunt said...

More Avgas news:

EPA Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Lead Emissions from Piston-Engine Aircraft Using Leaded Aviation Gasoline: Regulatory Announcement

Also aircraft type clubs representing aircraft like the Piper Malibu are starting to get worried about Continental's moves to push 94UL as the replacement fuel, because their engines won't run on it.

Groups Act On Potential Leaded-Fuel Rulemaking

Jonathan Sisk
President, Malibu and Meridian Owners & Pilots Association Board of Directors adds his concerns.

Michael Shaw said...

Also, the high compression gang, e.g., Malibu, Meridians, are getting
nervous they will be "knocking" on death's door if the EPA eliminates leaded avgas. Excuse the pun.


Adam Hunt said...

Well Continental has indicated that owners can upgrade to the next larger engine to regain the lost horsepower, although that sounds expensive!

The problem with Malibu owners is that their aircraft use:

PA-46-310P Malibu - Continental TSIO-520-BE

PA-46-350P Malibu Mirage & PA-46R-350T Matrix - Lycoming TI0-540-AE2A

...they really don't have a lot of room to move up in engines without having to install a PT-6.

Adam Hunt said...

This story is continuing to gain momentum. It seems that the American Bonanza Society, the Malibu Mirage Owners and Pilots Association and the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, all representing owners of 100 octane-required aircraft have formed a new group to lobby for a 100 octane solution, the Green 100 Octane Coalition.

They make the argument that if you cut out the 20% of the fleet that needs 100 octane and adopt 94UL instead that market will collapse. Their main reason is that this 20% of aircraft buy 80% of the gas, making the market non-viable if they are grounded.

Big-Engine Type Groups Unite On Fuel Issue