Swift Fuel: Is It for Real?
With everyone worrying about both the cost and availability of leaded avgas, the reporting we've done on Swift Fuel, a proposed replacement, has generated plenty of interest, not to mention questions. The lead-off query: Is this stuff for real?
From the outside looking in, it's always difficult to judge the credibility of projects like this. People directly involved in them are perpetually on the sunny side of the street and they'll tell you what they truly believe or what they think you want to hear. With that caveat, my impression is that yes, Swift Fuel is a legitimate industrial development project, albeit one that's still a long shot.
First, what is this stuff? It's a biofuel generated from cellulosic feedstock rather than starch feedstock. That means Swift will use switchgrass or sorghum rather than corn to ferment acetone from which it then manufactures a 100-plus octane fuel. As we reported last week, the FAA has done proof-of-concept testing on Swift Fuel and finds that it has more energy content than 100LL and excellent anti-detonation margin. That's good news. What the FAA tested is the chemistry-set version of Swift Fuel, what one petrochemical chemist we know calls the "$65 gallon of avgas." The real stuff, squeezed out of the biomass, hasn't been made yet, at least in volume. (For all the details on this, see our extensive analysis in the April 2009 of Aviation Consumer available in about two weeks.)
Swift estimates a manufactured cost of about $2 a gallon. That's the refinery out number, by the way, not the pump price. Add taxes, transportation and FBO margin and you're somewhere north of $4. Again, that's realistic if Swift's basic numbers are correct. But there are good reasons to believe they're a little optimistic. For one, you never hear this phrase in developmental projects: "Detailed testing has revealed that our estimates we're incorrect. Our product is much cheaper to make than we originally thought." It's always the other way around.
The challenges facing Swift Fuel are substantial. Yield from the biomass will be critical. To achieve its stated economics, Swift will have to evolve its chemical process to yield more of the chemicals it needs and less of those it doesn't and on a massive scale. This is easier said than done. It will also have to show that the biomass-generated fuel is free enough of impurities and unwanted byproducts to perform as well as the lab-made version. And that real-deal fuel will have to worm its way through the certification process.
Then there's the raw, commodity-driven blackhole of petroleum economics. The whole thing is tied to the price of oil which, at $40, isn't providing much encouragement for alternative fuel development. In the unlikely event that Swift Fuel proved cheaper on an equivalent octane basis than oil-based hydrocarbons, the refinery trade will buy up every drop of it for blendstock or otherwise bid up the price. One solution to this, says Swift's John Rusek, is to isolate the new fuel from the petroleum trade by marketing and distributing it through agricultural channels, as an aviation-only product. Well, maybe. Just because that hasn't been tried doesn't mean it couldn't work.
In Swift's favor are two things: Tetraethyl lead won't be around forever and the oil industry interest in using it to make avgas may be waning. We've been saying that about lead for nearly three decades now, but just as sure as the sun will explode into a red giant, TEL will eventually disappear. Even if it doesn't, if the oil companies decide they don't want to fool with avgas anymore—a real possibility because of falling demand—Swift could have a perfectly timed opening.
The fact that it's cellulosic rather than starch-based is a plus, for I predict that the country will eventually wake up and realize how utterly stupid the U.S. corn-based ethanol program has been. Energy yields from corn are pathetically low and the direct subsidies have been as much as $1.45 a gallon. The cellulose lobby hasn't done as well for itself and one hopes that it never will, except for research and seed money. If these alternative energy sources can't stand on their own economically, they shouldn't stand at all.
Coming full circle, that means that if Swift Fuel's real manufacturing cost is $3 a gallon and that translates to $5 or a little more at retail, they've got a player. GA in the U.S. can and has adapted to $5 avgas. If Swift can deliver, this project could have legs.