At Aero 2013 in Friedrichshafen this week, fuel has been a leading topic of discussion and if there’s any single word to describe the mood on the industry it’s this: confused. In Europe, many airports have three fuels available — autogas, 100LL and Jet A — and a handful are distributing French refiner Total’s 91UL. But that fuel isn’t widely deployed enough to have gained other than toehold market status.
“I don’t think we have any clearing on the horizon from clouds surrounding fuel options yet,” says Continental Motor’s CEO Rhett Ross in a podcast recorded at Aero this week. In 2010, Continental launched a trial balloon to see if 94UL fuel would gain any traction, but since then, says Ross, the company has stepped back awaiting market clarity. “But we’re not just waiting and seeing, we continue to believe that we have to provide solutions that take into account all of the options,” Ross says. Continental last December certified its first diesel, a four-cylinder 200- to 250-HP turbocharged engine called the TD300. The company says it has a launch customer but has declined to reveal who it is, promising more information later in the year. Continental also developed an alternative fuel version of its IO-360 line approved for 91AKI fuel and that engine will be used in Flight Design’s C4, whose development has been delayed to take advantage of regulatory reform.
During the course of Aero, we asked both Continental’s Ross and Lycoming general manager Michael Kraft about the likelihood of mogas — that is automotive fuel, not aviation-certified 91AKI — becoming a player in the fuels market. Both say it’s unlikely. “What we are observing is that pump gas is going to be increasingly unsuitable, particular with the pressure to move to a 15-percent ethanol content. There’s a big information gap in people understanding how potentially destabilizing these increased amounts of ethanol are,” says Lycoming general manager Michael Kraft in a podcast interview recorded at Aero this week. Both Ross and Kraft agree that the variability of motor pump gas is too great to make it a practical, reliable aviation fuel, despite its wide popularity in Europe.
Lycoming’s strategy has been to release a broad range of approvals for engines to operate on 91AKI such as Total’s UL91 or the equivalent. Even in Europe, where Total has been at it for several years, distribution of this fuel is limited and it’s not much cheaper than 100LL, if it’s any cheaper at all. “We’re in a little bit of a chicken and egg situation. It’s a supply and demand problem. As long as there are a limited number of aircraft approved to use an alternate fuel like the unleaded 91 grade, the opportunity for the fuel producers to put it out there is limited,” Kraft says. “So this round, we covered a substantial number of engines. It captures a large amount of the installed base within in the EU and now we’ll watch and see what happens on the distribution side,” he adds. He also believes there’s no reason why a carefully controlled automotive blendstock fuel couldn’t be used for aviation, but this might place it out of mainstream of commodity fuel pricing.
Kraft is optimistic on fuel certifications in the wake the Unleaded Avgas Transition ARC which established a new FAA office to oversee approvals. “From Lycoming’s perspective, this has been a real benefit and a well implemented recommendation from the ARC,” Kraft says. When Lycoming moved its most recent round of engine approvals through the new FAA AIR-20 office, Kraft says the streamlined process worked well. Another unit, AIR-21, handles airframes. “You can really tell that the FAA has implemented those offices with a very positive attitude,” Kraft adds.