The general aviation industry is searching for an alternative for 100 low lead avgas (100LL). But it is really necessary?
By now we all know that human exposure to lead is unhealthy – most commonly, exposure to lead causes neurological problems in children and cardiovascular problems in adults. We’ve probably all made sure that our walls weren’t once painted with leaded paint and our lead pipes aren’t corroding and contaminating our drinking water. But have you considered that general aviation aircraft operations are the main source of lead pollution today? Those who work in and around small piston aircraft might be exposed to harmful lead pollution – and the EPA and FAA are ready to do something about it.
"Emissions of lead from piston-engine aircraft using leaded avgas comprise approximately half of the national inventory of lead emitted to air," claims the EPA. The organization estimates that about 41,000 tons of lead from avgas was emitted between 1970 and 2007. And, According to an EPA factsheet, the concentration of lead in the air increases near general aviation airports due to the use of 100LL fuel.
But our air quality is fine, right? And people have been using 100LL for years without adverse health affects…right? This might be true, but general aviation’s lead problem, while seemingly minor, is not a small problem at all.
Lead emitted from general aviation flight operations not only pollutes the air in and around airports, but it’s capable of traveling great distances before accumulating on the ground and in ground water. And, because there is no level of lead that is said to be safe when it comes to human exposure, the EPA and other environmental groups are pushing for the aviation community to adopt a lead-free fuel.
While many in the industry agree that it’s time to make the switch to an alternative fuel, others aren’t quite sure it’ll be worth the price. To the author’s knowledge, there have been no studies regarding the amount of lead in humans that work or live around general aviation airports, nor has there been any actual emissions testing on aircraft that operate with 100LL fuel. The EPA and other organizations have assumed that the hazard exists based on the amount of lead in avgas, and the fact that avgas is the only leaded fuel out there, leaving some people wondering if the problem even exists at all.
Regardless of the lack of information, the FAA has declared its agreement with the EPA and is taking steps toward a lead-free future, noting that general aviation aircraft are the only type of fuel-burning transportation that still uses leaded fuel.
In July 2014, the FAA received nine proposals for alternative fuels that would replace 100LL avgas, including proposals from Afton Chemical Company, Avgas LLC, Shell, Swift Fuels, BP, TOTAL, and Hjelmco. For the next few years, the FAA will be testing and evaluating these fuels during a two-phase, six million dollar per year program called the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative (PAFI). They hope to have a solution that satisfies the entire general aviation fleet of 100LL users by December 2018.
As an aircraft owner, you might not be worried about air quality around airports or exposure to lead through your own piston aircraft use. But the transition to lead-free fuel is happening, and the bigger problem here is that an alternative fuel will affect all 100LL users in the not-so-distant future. Before long, aircraft owners could be faced with buying a new engine or at the very least, a certification process for a new fuel type. While the FAA hopes to find a fuel that will keep all aircraft flying, there is bound to be a cost associated with keeping 100LL aircraft in the air in the post-100LL days. And if you thought today’s avgas is expensive, a new type will probably cost even more.
Diesel might be the way to go, after all.
What are your thoughts? Is the creation of a lead-free fuel a necessary step into the future for GA, or have environmentalist organizations created a problem that doesn’t really exist? Comment and let us know!