Is Unleaded Aviation Fuel a Realistic Expectation?

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The short answer to the question posed by the title of this piece is “yes”. However, achieving the large-scale adoption of unleaded fuel in the aviation industry is much more complicated than one would anticipate after considering that lead is not a thing for automobile gasoline for more than two decades now.

So, what is it that holds the aviation field back, still using the carcinogenic toxic pollutant? Simply put, it’s the much elevated needs of high-compression piston engines that need lead in order to keep their internals protected. Failure of a mechanical component while in the sky has life-threatening consequences, so taking lead out of the picture isn’t exactly a no-brainer in his case.

According to FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) data, there are still about 170 000 aircraft that rely on low-lead fuel. Their annual flying activities correspond to the consumption of approximately 600 million liters of fuel, a pretty significant figure. As lead has been deprecated from virtually any other industry, all of the lead emission right now stem from aviation, so a transition to unleaded fuel is now an imperative need. Since a decade ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tried to lobby for the adoption of a relevant regulatory context, but their initiative met the harsh reality of economics, and the absence of market-driven reasons for fuel makers to comply with strict guidelines.

Lead may be helpful in reducing engine knocks and boosting octane ratings, but it’s not all bells and whistles for the engine really. It can cause accelerated wear and tear, corrosion to the oil system, spark-plug damage, and result in more frequent maintenance sessions. These are the arguments that proponents of unleaded fuel use when they try to convince pilots to ditch leaded gasoline. This new initiative comes with new products that are compatible with the engines of 2/3 of the existing piston fleet in the United States right now. Still, these alternatives are only 94-octane products, so there’s still some way to go until we reach suitable 100-octane replacements offered at an antagonistic cost.

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