The TEL Scare That Wasn't
Although I can't be certain, it appears that most AVweb readers were spared last week's pointless #^%$storm du jour, but it contained something interesting, so I'm compelled to mention it here. Specifically, our news inboxes took in some stories from the UK and a chemical specialty magazine that said Innospec, supplier of tetraethyl lead, the critical octane booster in avgas, would end TEL production by the end of this year.
This was reported in several UK newspapers that took up the case against TEL after a provocative article in Mother Jones magazine claimed, among other things, that crime rates were directly related to airborne lead emissions from gasoline. The magazine claimed that lead emissions may explain up to 90 percent of the rise and fall of violent crime during the past half century. Tall claims, no?
If the TEL extinction part were true, we would be in big trouble in GA. The wheels of the FAA are slowly grinding to find an unleaded replacement for 100LL, but it will be at least three years, if not five. If TEL really dried up, so would avgas. But it isn't and it won't, unless the refiners decide they don't want to make 100LL anymore. We contacted Innospec who told us that it is indeed phasing out production of TEL for automotive fuels as the three countries that still use it—Iraq, Algeria and Yemen—transition to unleaded fuels.
On the subject of aviation, Innospec's Alistair Thompson said the company is unambiguous: "Innospec has a scalable manufacturing operation in place to be able meet the demands of the GA industry for TEL-B. We reiterate that we have no current plans to cease the manufacture or supply of TEL-B and, whilst there is continued demand for 100LL, we will continue to support the industry during the phase out of the product."
Key word above: phase out. Don't get the impression that anyone thinks leaded fuel is anything but a legacy. The decision to eliminate it has been made and it won't be reversed, so don't bother to chop the dead horse into small cubes and insert it into the word blender for further reduction. We've settled the argument. Now it's only a matter of keeping the lifeboat afloat long enough to bridge into the unleaded future.
It's always possible that Innospec's plant could blow up and that its stockpiles of TEL could be lost or that environmental interests in the UK could force the issue. Or maybe those rumors we keep hearing that Shell and Chevron desperately want out of the avgas business will come true at last, even as their tankers keep arriving at airports with fresh loads of 100LL. It's also possible that Easter Bunny will be the next president of AOPA. But alas, we're dealing with probabilities here and there's a high probability TEL will be available for as long as it's needed.
And by the way, it's not true that Innospec is the only source of TEL. I had heard from Chinese sources at Oshkosh that China makes its own avgas indigenously with its own TEL production. Lycoming's Michael Kraft, who has traveled extensively on aviation business in China, confirmed this. Whether China could export TEL elsewhere is an unknown, but it's clear that they make it.
Back to the Mother Jones piece. I don't know whether to be alarmed, appalled or amused by the findings in this article. The graphs of crime rates overlaid with lead emissions seem a little too perfect to believe. What if we plotted other variables, like the production of mushrooms or pork belly futures? The consumption of light beer? Or beets? Would there be similar correlations with the crime rate? Was the science controlled for other factors? The article is a little vague on this. I find it unconvincing, but you can judge it for yourself. Thankfully, it doesn't mention the microscopic amount of lead emissions general aviation is still responsible for. We're such a minor industry as to be off the radar. For once, maybe that's a good thing.
While on the subject of unleaded fuel, Todd Petersen, who developed hundreds of mogas STCs during the 1980s, complained that my story last week updating various fuel projects incorrectly said mogas wasn't an approved aviation fuel. Fair point. I should have said it's not a purpose-made aviation fuel, but the STCs mean it is aviation approved for many engines.