G100UL: This Is Gonna Be Interesting
When I was young pup newspaper reporter, I rolled into the newsroom one day at the crack of noon—we were an a.m. daily—to hear a most disconcerting one-sided conversation between the city editor and some unknown entity at the other end of the line. "Yeah, well," he was saying, "it turned out our source was full of s***."
Now this has always been, is and will always be a fact of life in journalism. Journalists talk to people, interpret what they say and write stories. If the sources are wrong, the story is wrong, too. By convention, you figure it out the next day and write a new story or a correction. You kinda hope it doesn't go on for, oh, 25 years.
That's exactly the way I felt when I hung up the phone after talking to George Braly about the new fuel he is testing as a substitute for 100LL. If his suppositions prove true—and, more important, economic—the solution to the avgas problem has been sitting under our noses for nearly three decades. To summarize, Braly is looking into an octane additive that's a known material and is available through the normal course of refining operations. Or more accurately, that's one way to make it.
He declines to say what it is until further testing and economic scratch padding is done, but a quick Web search turns up a host of possibilities. Toluene is one, an additive that's already a blendstock of avgas. There are patents out there for aviation fuels octane-boosted with things like isopentane, n-butane, MTBE and others. (MTBE is an environmental no-no.) I found a paper on using nearly straight toluene as a racing fuel, with good results, except it doesn't vaporize well enough to start in cold weather.
It really doesn't matter what the material is as long as it delivers the octane, does no other harm to the engine and is refineable in sufficient volume to be near the cost of tetraethyl lead. It doesn't have to be cheaper, it just has to be close in cost. And it can't be too good or too cheap, otherwise it will get skimmed off for use in products more profitable than avgas. That's the giant hole in Swift Fuel's economics. If they make 100-octane anything for $3, that giant sucking sound is every refiner in the country buying it for blendstock.
The worst case scenario might be a material that gets 100UL within about $2 of current avgas prices. Compared the specter of losing 100LL entirely, the industry might bite on that and break its nasty lead habit once and for all. Unfortunately, it would usher in the reality of $7 avgas—maybe permanently. Initiatives such as variable timing to accommodate lower octane fuel or other blends are already dying a slow death. An expensive solution that's not too expensive might kill them. But that's the free market for you.
It's too soon to say if G100UL dosed with the mystery octane booster is the real deal or not. Braly tested the fuel, it's got the desired octane and thus good detonation characteristics. GAMI and TAT have a good track record for delivering on their research, but they're not infallible. We'll know more in a month or two.
Coming full circle here, we've been told for years that researchers have tried everything from Thunderbird wine to Unobtainium Oxide to boost octane, but nothing worked or if it did work, the economics didn't. And we, as journalists, pretty much bought that and wrote our avgas Chicken Little stories because that's what our sources told us. So maybe the research wasn't done well or at all. Maybe it was just lazy science.
If they've been wrong all along, and the avgas crisis resolution comes out of a T-hangar project in Oklahoma, I for one will be most amused.