Is Shell's Replacement Fuel Coming Up Short?
There are two ways to look at the ongoing FAA fuels testing project called the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative. One is that no news is good news and things must be perking along as planned. The other is that no news is bad news and that things aren’t going as planned or else we would have heard progress reports.
The rational among us would assume the former, realizing as we do that the federal rules on which the PAFI program is based require confidentiality to protect the proprietary interests of the companies doing the work. That’s not an unreasonable requirement given that the FAA is intimately involved in this process and necessarily intersects with the secrets companies doing the work would just as well keep secret until these fuels are finally approved.
But we live in a leaky world and what’s leaking out is not encouraging, especially with regard to Shell’s proposed unleaded replacement for 100LL. Recall that PAFI started in 2013 with 17 potential fuels from six entities. As PAFI has proceeded through its planned phases, that has been winnowed to two fuels for final testing, one from Shell and one from Swift. Both are now undergoing advanced testing, including flight trials toward a 2018 certification date.
The last official update from the FAA was in July at AirVenture, which delivered bland assurances that everything is just fine. From what I’m hearing, it may not be. Over the weekend, we heard from the fourth source who told us that the Shell fuel may have high toxicity and significant materials compatibility issues. One source told us the fuel is capable of stripping paint off wing surfaces and did. Two others told us the fuel has compatibility issues with seals and O-rings, a key element in the ability to drop into the existing fuel infrastructure, not the least of which is the fuel system in individual aircraft. We’re also hearing that it requires respirators and protective gear to handle, at least in the version being tested now.
Whenever a planned product overhangs the market with distant promises, whisper campaigns are inevitable. I’d say this is another one of those, except the sources I spoke to about it are highly reliable. No one wants to or can go on the record because of non-disclosure agreements and the aforementioned federal rules. However necessary such secrecy may be, it begets certain people lifting up the corner of the tent and that’s where we are.
I reached out to Shell about this and got what I expected: an assurance that Shell will deliver a fieldable fuel by the agreed-upon date in 2018. But a polite refusal to answer detailed questions about results of materials compatibility or toxicity testing. Both of these are critical because if the fuel that emerges requires HAZMAT handling at the dispensing point, that’s not just a non-drop-in, it’s worse than 100LL and of doubtful appeal in the market. For what it’s worth, we haven’t heard these complaints about Swift’s candidate fuel.
So what does all this mean? Ever the sunny optimist, I still believe there will be a viable replacement for 100LL and by 2018. The volume of business, although in graceful decline, still represents too much money to just walk away from. Something will emerge. I do have concerns that the materials compatibility will be devised in a way intelligent enough to represent every airplane, including my 78-year-old Cub.
And for the record, I’m not the only guy who has heard about this. I’m told by firsthand sources that the alphabets are well aware of it and so are people in the fuel community. (AOPA declined comment.) What I’d wish for is an honest, detailed update from the FAA and from Shell. If these problems have been addressed, say. Otherwise, if we’re headed for a train wreck here, better to find out sooner than later.
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