Alternative Fuel Cooperation

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So here's an idea, courtesy of the friendly frozen folks of the country that puts the north in North America. Canada is pitching in to help determine what less environmentally-damaging alternatives to 100LL might be out there.

The country's National Research Council was perfectly willing to all but go it alone and do a comprehensive study on the drawbacks and merits of five different kinds of potential substitutes. After all, it spent two years in obscurity helping develop and test a drop-in replacement for Jet A that not only performs as well as Jet-A but actually benefits the agricultural industry that keeps us fed.

The fuel came from the Ethiopian Mustard plant (Brassica Carinata), which will not only thrive on marginal farmland, it can be used as a fallow crop to restore nutrients taken by food crops. It grows in Saskatchewan, which is like North Dakota, only colder.

In October, NRC made history by flying the first jet flight on 100 percent biofuel made from the lowly plant from Saskatchewan. The NRC is the first to admit that it was probably the most expensive flight it's ever made in terms of fuel cost but the quest for a petroleum alternative that can be cost competitive has to start somewhere.

Advanced aviation fuel research is a pretty small world so it was inevitable that the FAA and the NRC would find out about what each other was doing. Then something pretty cool happened in the world of bureaucracies, tight government budgets and an alarming trend toward indifference about the wonders of science.

NRC and the FAA have agreed to divvy up the work in determining what potential 100LL alternative fuels work best in what engines and they'll be comparing notes. The FAA will do its evaluations on Lycomings and NRC will tackle Continentals. Both countries have a lot of self interest in finding the right fuel to keep big bore engines toiling for the various enterprises that depend on them.

But Canada and the U.S. are not the only countries that have a big stake in getting lead out of fuel without making the 540s and 550s (not to mention round engines) of the world boat anchors.

So, now that the spirit of cooperation has been established, maybe somebody should get on the phone and see how Europe, Australasia and South Africa might contribute.

It should be noted that one of the fuels NRC will test is a made-in-Canada derivative of the same plant that fueled the jet experiment. So maybe the other countries have technologies, feedstocks or processes that can be thrown into the mix.

There may come a day when big, high compression piston engines will be truly obsolete but that day is likely decades away. There are a lot of flying countries that will depend on them until then. They'll probably be more than willing to help find a practical alternative to 100LL.

Maybe someone should ask.

Comments (25)

I LOVE 100/130. It is the GREEN fuel. Who needs anything else? Keep the vegetables for the cows.

Posted by: ROBERT ZIEGLER | December 31, 2012 6:32 AM    Report this comment

It seems to me a suitable unleaded fuel is currently being used in Europe. Why re-invent the wheel? Any society that uses food for fuel ain't looking at the big picture. Ethanol has proven to be extremely problematic and was nothing but a pay off to the corn lobby.

Posted by: Jim Doody | December 31, 2012 7:19 AM    Report this comment

Keep the corn crap out of av fuel. 94 UL seems to be a reasonable compromise--if one actually worries about 100LL. This controversy is inane, stupid etc. The amount of lead in 100LL is simply not enough for a rational person to worry about!!!

Posted by: Kenneth Nolde | December 31, 2012 7:33 AM    Report this comment

This is nuts. Thanks to shale oil, fracking and directional drilling, the U.S. is now a net exporter of gasoline and in the first week of December our production of crude exceeded that of Saudi Arabia. We are already the world's largest producer of natural gas and will be come the largest producer of crude by 2020. We have the world's largest reserves of coal, and can create gas or fuel from coal, fuel from gas, gas from crude, etc. Why in the world are we burning food? Mogas and Jet-A are relatively simple to produce from oil, which is why they are already the primary aviation fuels outside N.A. and Europe, and why virtually all new aircraft engines can operate on one or the other - but no longer require an 100 MON fuel like Avgas. Let's look forward and stop trying to replace a fuel that is slowing becoming obsolete anyway. Check out the Inpulse water injection system from AirPlains for those who will need 100LL when Innospec stops making TEL and 100LL disappears, which it will.

Posted by: Kent Misegades | December 31, 2012 8:17 AM    Report this comment

Repeated measurements have shown that even at the highest levels of activity the level of lead in the environment from flying is not measurable. The relatively small amount exhausted and the area it is exhausted into creates very little environmental impact. Consider that there is 2 grams of lead per gallon. (actually only 1.2 grams of elemental lead) and a 172 uses 8 gal/hr flying 100 MPH that is 16 grams of lead over an area 100 miles long and perhaps 100's of yards wide. Even assuming a 1 foot wide concentration that is .00003 grams or .03 milligrams per square foot. It is also assuming that none of lead is burned in the engine or left on the cylinder or valve seats. The bigger issue is not the pollution, and as yet I have not seen any report on the actual emmissions from an airplane engine, but the demise of TEL production. This is really a political issue and not an actual environmental concern. How about we do some testing to see how much flying ACTUALLY impacts the environment?

Posted by: RODNEY HALL | December 31, 2012 8:42 AM    Report this comment

"This is really a political issue and not an actual environmental concern."
'It's technopolitical' was our favored term in explaining why some otherwise indefensible decision was made. Much rolling of eyes always among the group.

Posted by: John Wilson | December 31, 2012 9:20 AM    Report this comment

George Braly and the fine folks at GAMI seem to be making very good progress with their G100UL replacement for 100LL. The trick in all this will be to get the different arms of business and government to move on the same timelines, otherwise we will find lawsuits shutting down 100LL use in the US (due to lead) before a replacement is ready to be trucked out to airports. If the replacement can't easily be mixed with 100LL, shipment and storage will be a huge issue too. I would expect most FBOs will not be keen on the idea of building additional tanks and pumping infrastructure for the tiny return they already get on fuel sales.

Posted by: John O'Shaughnessy | December 31, 2012 9:41 AM    Report this comment

My greatest hope here is for Braly's success. A lead-free fuel wouldn't have to be shipped separately, and theoretically should cost less because of this. I don't expect to see avgas ever go below $5/gal, but what we're paying now is killing Ga. The existing infrastructure could be used for the new G100UL after flushing, I'd think.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | December 31, 2012 10:43 AM    Report this comment

Tetraethyl lead has poisoned/killed so many workers that worked in the TEL plants over the years that I will do a little dance when the last drop of that stuff has been made. TEL is a very potent neurotoxin and the sooner we get rid of this stuff, the better. Bureaucratic interia is one of the greatest problems of our day, it is nearly impossible to make changes to our system simply because "that's they way we've always done it."

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | December 31, 2012 12:29 PM    Report this comment

"The NRC is the first to admit that it was probably the most expensive flight it's ever made in terms of fuel cost but the quest for a petroleum alternative that can be cost competitive has to start somewhere."

Why? It's not like we're running out of petroleum or its cousin, natural gas.

We can assemble jet fuel from monkey farts, water, and fresh air - if we want to. But it still will be jet fuel - just as poluting as if it were refined from petroleum. But it will cost 1,000 times as much as refined fuel.

Think back to the Saturn-5 launch vehicle. It had three stages. The top two were fueled by hydrogen and oxygen. The first stage was fueled by kerosene and oxygen. Why? Energy density. Damned fine stuff, that kerosene!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 31, 2012 4:23 PM    Report this comment

"Tetraethyl lead has poisoned/killed so many workers that worked in the TEL plants over the years..."

Ah, would you care to quantify that?

Posted by: John Wilson | January 1, 2013 11:15 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: sam verma | January 2, 2013 1:43 AM    Report this comment

Aah, now you've pressed my buttons...
Firstly, let me say I'm not against fossil fuels, just the way the oil companies conspire to rip us off, and create shortages, or crises to jack up the prices when there is no need. Have you ever noticed they make record profits every time we go through a crisis? Anyway, the truth is for every barrel of crude oil, you can produce three times as much Diesel, kerosine, or light oils, as you can Petrol... and there is no need to further refine, add TEL or those nasty carcinogens Benzine or Tolulene to control detonation, other than remove a bit of Sulphur... The future of light aircraft has to be modern Turbo Diesels, using modern technology and materials to make the engines lighter than the current crop of Mercedes derived engines. (check out Honda's 2.2 or 2.8 Litre Turbo Diesel with all alloy Engine and CFRP Plug in the Upper block to contain the pressures of compression ignition). Even with the extra weight penalty of the Astro Diesel engine, the less than half fuel burn per hour almost makes up for it, and the Diamond DA42 performs well with a useful range and hot performance. We shouldn't be trying to come up with an alternative fuel to keep the Dinosaur GA Engines going. They are never going to be efficient with overly large pistons, poorly designed induction and exhaust systems, with only two valves per cylinder, low compression ratios and badly shaped combustion chambers. It is no wonder we need 100 octane Gasoline.
Owen Wilson

Posted by: Owen Wilson | January 2, 2013 4:39 AM    Report this comment

Part two..
Neither should we be using Food Crops to make Bio Fuels. They should be used to feed our world. If we become efficient with our fuel usage, the fossil fuels will last longer, and if or when they finally run out, the diesels will run on the Biofuels also.
Diesel and kerosine should be a third of the price of Gasoline given you can make 3x as much per barrel of crude, and if you burn half the amount for the same flying distance, it should make fuel costs 1/6 of what they are now. That's gotta be good for flying. Will the oil companies let it happen? Not without a fight! They want us to burn as much as we can! Alright, I'm off my soapbox. Have a great 2013.
Owen Wilson

Posted by: Owen Wilson | January 2, 2013 5:02 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: sam verma | January 2, 2013 5:32 AM    Report this comment

In South Africa they have a product they have had for 40 plus years called Sasol. Fuel derived from coal. All fuels purchased in SA will have some content (approx 50% or more) of Sasol including aviation fuels (Jet, 100 LL etc). The cost of the plant has been paid for and although they (Sasol) say costs too much to produce the question is why is it still been produced and mixed into normal fuels?

It all has to do with politics as in "Don't touch my profits". So until we get rid of man's greed we are going to have these up and down crisis.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | January 2, 2013 6:40 AM    Report this comment

Maybe someone should ask how much energy it takes to make a gallon of "bio fuel" and how well does the production process scale up. My suspicion is that it's both uneconomical and an ecological disaster.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 2, 2013 7:07 AM    Report this comment

Sorry Sam,
Wasn't directed at your comment.. Just the discussion in general!
I know 91 Unleaded, and wouldn't put it anywhere near a TIO540 even with additives. What is MTBE anyway? Motor Torpedo Boat Engines ?

Cheers, Owen

Posted by: Owen Wilson | January 2, 2013 7:31 AM    Report this comment

There is no future of light aircraft... Politics and Lobbyist have sealed its fate!

Posted by: Todd Covey | January 2, 2013 9:19 AM    Report this comment

Todd's comment sure has merit. Our airport has a couple hundred planes most of which are just sitting and rotting on the ramp. Why waste time and more importantly money in unsuitable fuel development? Just use what we have. It will take decades to make new engine technology (utilizing Jet-A) economically feasible with the unreasonable FAA requirements to certify. By that time none of us will be able to afford to fly.

Posted by: Kaleb Dubhia | January 2, 2013 10:55 AM    Report this comment

Bruce, the SASOL plant can be smelt 100 km away on a winter's morning -- a sickly hydrogen-sulphide stink, coupled with a yellow haze. Knowing South Africa I very much doubt that any attempts will be made to clean it up.
I have been downwind too of some dodgy oil refineries but they smelt like roses in comparison.
Supply side market forces may push change. So many refineries are going out of business because new diesel and petrol (gasoline) powered cars and trucks are much more efficient (a 30% improvement in truck engines for big artics, over the past 30 years) that the limited few making leaded aviation fuel might shrink to the point where the remaining one or two start charging monopoly prices.
Then the conversion kits to mogas, of harder valves and pistons and so on will make more financial sense.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | January 2, 2013 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Most of the "octane booster" products appear to primairly use MTBE, which I think has a basic R=M/2 octane rating of about 118. The hot-rod guys say you can boost 92-octane car gas to 100 ocatane by mixing 30% MTBE.

I think the cost at that level would be prohibitive.

Posted by: John Wilson | January 2, 2013 2:37 PM    Report this comment

Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether was an oxygenate additive used in US mogas before ethanol was mandated. MTBE has polluted ground water where it has seeped out of underground gasoline storage tanks.

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | January 3, 2013 11:22 AM    Report this comment

I favor bringing back MTBE, provided gas stations are required to take precautions against storage tank leakage. This might enable historic aircraft like old B-25s, or present-day aircraft like the Bonanza or Baron, to keep flying.

If lead from 100LL is that much of a problem (and admittedly, it might not be), here's a question for those who still use this fuel: If your piston aircraft is a Beechcraft Baron or Piper Seneca, what would be the economics of using a single engine turboprop aircraft instead? Based on real world experience with Rolls Royce Allison 250-series or Pratt & Whitney of Canada PT-6 series engines (Happy 50th birthday PT-6!), what safety issues might there be in flying across Lake Michigan in (for example) a Piper Meridian instead of today's piston twins?

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 3, 2013 12:23 PM    Report this comment

Hi Brian obviously you've been there and I agree little chance of cleaning it up. This is the problem when extracting fuels from .. whatever. There is always a problem.

If alcohol consumption in moderation is beneficial to the person drinking then maybe we will find that lead released into the atmosphere in the small quantities that it is could also be beneficial. Just hoping>

Posted by: Bruce Savage | January 3, 2013 12:37 PM    Report this comment

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