More Study on the Future of Lead-Free Avgas

Aviation groups are approaching the issue of leaded avgas from two fronts — how to remove the lead; and how much actual environmental danger does the small amount of lead in aviation fuels truly represent. The consensus on the aviation side is that unleaded avgas is an ultimate necessity. But it's advisable to study further how to strike a balance among the real environmental impact of today's leaded fuels; the economic impact of developing and manufacturing effective alternative fuels of suitable octane; and the safety issues involved in ensuring performance levels for existing aircraft engines that require the leaded fuels' octane levels. The Avgas Coalition has reported to the Environmental Protection Agency that more research is necessary to evaluate the real environmental impact of leaded aviation fuel, and the real benefit to the environment to eliminating such fuels. In its remarks, the coalition noted that today's aviation fuel contains half the tetraethyl lead that avgas contained in 1978 when national standards for air quality were established. Still, aviation groups and fuel refiners appear resigned to the ultimate demise of leaded fuel. For the oil companies, long term benefits of lead-free avgas would include the elimination of entirely separate delivery and quality control infrastructure now required to accommodate relatively tiny amounts of fuel (compared to their overall production). Refining, producing and delivering leaded avgas has never been cost effective, and oil companies continue to do it only to support the lower end of the general aviation food chain, so there will be pilots to fly the jets that burn kerosene — which is profitable to produce. In the meantime, the FAA Aviation Fuel and Engine Test Facility continues to research alternative fuels with sufficient octane levels to support all piston aircraft engines. Oil companies and engine manufacturers are also deeply involved in the research. The Obama Administration's proposed budget, with strong support from Congress, includes $2 million annually to continue the effort over the next five years.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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