Avgas LLC Unveiled
In last weekís blog, I was bemoaning the fact that the FAAís avgas replacement effort had entered the dark phase and itís now impossible to find out much of anything about whatís going on behind closed doors. No one seemed to know anything about a company called Avgas LLC, which is one of five companies to have submitted fuel candidates.
The FAA was of no help and the PR office is now to the point that they donít bother to return queries.†Fortunately, the companyís principal, John Elling, contacted me last week. He gave me a general sketch of what they have in mind. Ellingís Avgas LLC is a tiny startup which is itself working with another startup called XF Technologies.
The company is developing a family of compounds called furoate esters for use as oxygenate blendstock in gasoline and diesel fuels. Think of them as an alternative or an enhancer for ethanol oxygenates and youíre in the ballpark. In fact, XF is pitching furoates as the next generation oxygenate. XF hopes to produce these compounds from cellulosic biomass sources. Elling told me furoate esters have good octane characteristics (and arenít a cetane depressant for diesel), are non-corrosive, hydrophobic and have good lubricity. In short, they look attractive as fuel additives.
XF has in mind producing its furoates from waste biomass using the kind of cellulosic processes that a number of companies are working at perfecting. And therein lies the snag. Although they pencil out well and potentially have attractive economics,†cellulosic processes havenít proven out yet in the real world, at least in terms of efficient production. They may get there, but they arenít quite ready to take on petrochemically produced additives or even traditional fermented ethanol which, as we all know, has its own problems.
Then thereís the question of what the base blendstock would be. Would it be traditional aviation alkylate, which starts with an octane rating in the low to mid 90s? Or would it be a conventional automotive premium blendstock? Elling says the company hasnít gotten that far yet. I sense that there's an assumption that whatever replaces leaded avgas will use aviation alkylate as the base blendstock. Thereís such a deep seated bias against motor gasolines for aviation use that I donít see them even getting any kind of serious consideration in the emerging PAFI process, no matter who proposes them. The non-alkylate exception is Swift Fuel, which is a binary composed of mesitylene and isopentane catalyzed from acetone. The acetone could source from biomass, too, but may be more likely to come from natural gas or traditional petrochemical sources.
To be blunt about it, itís difficult for me to see how fuels like this will make it through the first cut of the FAAís PAFI process. And sorry to say that probably applies to Swift Fuel, too. I just donít see how the mechanism the FAA and the industry has set up would be sensitive to innovation, even if it meant a 25 percent reduction in price. In fact, the PAFI structure seems likely to be completely insensitive to price; it appears structured to obtain a workable fuel with the fewest unknowns and easiest transition into the field. That may not be ideal, but it's not a crazy idea, either. And even though the FAA denies itís picking winners and losers, thatís exactly what itís doing, since itís applying P&L considerations to the selection process. Depending on how thatís weighted in the final decision, it wouldnít be unreasonable to believe that Shell and the consortium of BP, Total and Hjelmco have the inside track. Especially since ConocoPhillips, Exxon and Chevron arenít even in the game.
Too bad this PAFI thing isnít going on five years from now. By then, cellulosic technology may come into its ownóor sink in the tryingóand a truly innovative aviation fuel would have a chance. As it is now, whatever emerges will probably be the fuel that propels the industry into the smoking crater it seems headed for. Gotta hand it to GA; we're really good at finding objections to potentially less expensive solutions in the name of safety, regulatory inertia and good old (expensive) tradition.
When I was talking to my friend, NTSB investigator Bill English, about the Asiana accident investigation, I was kidding him about having too few accidents to investigate. I boldly predicted he might just be able to coast into retirement with no more big accidents to handle.
A text I got from him on Thursday dispelled that notion. He was on his way to Ukraine to provide U.S. participation in the shootdown of MH 17. No oneís really sure what kind of a role the U.S. will have in the actual kicking of tin, although it clearly has a major role in whatís likely to be an intelligence-based crash investigation. Canít call it an accident, obviously. Mass murder would be more appropriate.
In any case, Bill was supposed to be at AirVenture next week to speak about Asiana. As of Sunday, those plans are uncertain. Iíll keep you posted.