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Alternatives to leaded aviation fuel are now finally in sight

Like Cessna 172 Skyhawk, far over 100,000 airplanes rely on leaded "avgas"
Like Cessna 172 Skyhawk, far over 100,000 airplanes rely on leaded "avgas"

For the first time, the long over-due search for viable alternatives to leaded avgas is moving to the next stage as the FAA prepares to begin evaluating fuels submitted for testing through the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative (PAFI), announced today by the FAA. July 1 marked the deadline to submit candidate fuels.

Reportedly, the FAA received nine replacement avgas proposals from fuel producers Afton Chemical Company, Avgas LLC, Shell Oil, Swift Fuels, and a consortium consisting of BP, TOTAL, and Hjelmco.

“Collaboration between aviation industry and petroleum innovators along with aviation and environmental regulators is key to finding and transitioning to the most viable unleaded aviation fuel for the greatest possible range of the general aviation fleet that currently relies on 100 low-lead avgas,” said Jack Pelton, EAA’s chairman of the board. “We have worked hard to reach this milestone, but it is only a first step. We must continue to work together to evaluate and introduce fuel that meets the highest safety and performance standards, can be supplied on a consistent, widespread basis, and is affordable to those who will ultimately use it.”

according to the EAA, PAFI is a joint industry-government effort to facilitate the development and deployment of a new unleaded avgas that will meet the needs of the existing piston-engine aircraft fleet. In addition to EAA and the FAA, the PAFI Steering Group includes the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the National Air Transportation Association, and the National Business Aviation Association.

Now, the FAA will now begin assessing the viability of the candidate fuels using the data packages provided during the submission process. The FAA will evaluate the proposals in terms of impact on the existing fleet, production and distribution infrastructure, environmental considerations, toxicological effects, and cost of aircraft operations.

As reported, the most promising fuels will be selected to participate in laboratory testing at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center beginning in September. Fuel developers will be asked to supply 100 gallons of fuel for phase one testing. Fuels that are successful in the first phase will move on to aircraft and engine testing. The second test phase will require 10,000 gallons of fuel and will generate standardized qualification and certification data, as well as property and performance data.

The US Congress appears poised to set aside approximately $6 million to continue the testing program in 2015. The FAA has set a 2018 deadline to develop at least one new unleaded fuel for general aviation piston aircraft.

Summarizing the situation, there are approximately 167,000 aircraft in the United States and a total of 230,000 worldwide that primarily rely on low-lead avgas for safe operation. It is the only remaining transportation fuel in the United States that contains added tetraethyl lead (TEL) needed to create the very high octane levels required by high-performance aircraft engines. Operations with inadequate octane can result in engine failures.

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