Embry-Riddle Helping to Research Unleaded Airline Fuel
October 30, 2014
  • Share
  • His lab is an airplane hangar, but instead of beakers and vials, Pat Anderson’s research consists of airplanes, engines and — lately — fuel.

    But the latest project for this aviation experimenter extends beyond the airplane and hangar and into the environment. The goal: make the air and sky in Daytona Beach a little cleaner.

    “We already take enough heat for our noise,” said the director of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Eagle Flight Research Center, which spearheads studies on everything from electric airplanes to unmanned aircrafts and autonomous planes. “The last thing we want to do is stir up conversations about pollution. We really want to be good stewards of the Earth; that is very important to our students.”

    There’s a national competition heating up between aviation fuel companies and Anderson is right in the middle of it. The finish line, which could be years or decades away — depending on action from the Federal Aviation Administration — is to find a fuel product that does not contain lead, a toxic material that can be absorbed in the bloodstream or inhaled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

    The FAA is currently testing possible unleaded solutions with a goal of finding a product by 2018. Years earlier, before this project began, ERAU invested nearly $300,000 to work with fuel companies Swift and General Aviation Modifications Inc. (GAMI) toward the same goal. So far, the experiments have been successful.

    Anderson monitors takeoffs and landing performance, flies the plane at various height levels. He shuts off the engine, glides for a while and then restarts. Hot fuel tests are conducted in which the gasoline is heated and put in the airplane.

    After all phases of research, Anderson said the engine was disassembled and inspected and everything was serviceable.

    But those on the forefront of the studies say there is uncertainty as to when, and if, the FAA will approve an unleaded fuel that works.

    “We have tested both these fuels and they are both, in our opinion, good candidate replacements,” Anderson said from the hangar recently. “They contain enough octane where they don’t (damage) the engine and we don’t think they are worse for the environment than the current fuel. … It’s our hope that we get approval to use these fuels in our airplanes, but it’s the government we are dealing with and it takes a very long time.”

    ‘Difficult problem’

    Why is it taking so long to get unleaded fuel in airplanes when automobiles made the shift years ago?

    It’s “technically a very difficult problem,” said George Brawley, head engineer for Oklahoma-based GAMI fuel.

    Airplanes, compared with automobiles, require fuel with higher levels of octane. When you put a lower octane fuel in an aviation engine you run the risk of detonation, or engine knocking, which is an explosion. High octane levels prevent detonation, and the only way currently to achieve the octane levels necessary is through the use of lead, said Walter Desrosier vice president, engineering and maintenance for General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

    “You can’t compare automotive fuel to aircraft fuel,” he said.

    Every airplane is built differently, and an unleaded fuel that works for one airplane might not work for another. Price is an issue, too, as low-lead is already a very expensive fuel and one of the reasons why personal aviation has dropped off over the past couple of years, Anderson said. There is also the challenge of ensuring the alternative materials put into unleaded fuel aren’t equally as harmful to the environment, he added.
    The U.S. has made progress reducing lead concentrations in the outdoor air in recent years. Nationwide, average concentrations of lead in the air have dropped 91 percent between 1980 and 2011. Much of this reduction is as a result of the permanent phase-out of lead in gasoline. However, lead continues to be emitted into the air from piston-engine aircraft operating on leaded fuel as well as several different types of stationary sources. There are more than 200,000 general aviation aircraft in the United States that rely on 100 low-lead aviation gasoline for safe operation, according to the FAA.

    “The reality is that everybody in this country over the age of 40 has been exposed to a lot of lead over their lifetime,” Brawley said. “The real threat from the small amount of aviation gasoline that has lead is probably not a serious environmental risk, but it has become politically unacceptable. The political unacceptability is forcing us to find a different solution.”

    Slow process

    The EPA is evaluating whether emissions of lead from aircraft cause or contribute to air pollution that can reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health.

    But even before the EPA decides just how hazardous lead emissions from aircraft are, the FAA has started its own program to develop and deploy a new, unleaded fuel. Congress authorized $6 million in 2014 to support the FAA’s testing program.

    Embry-Riddle officials question whether the FAA program is going to work and how long the process will take.

    “The FAA is very slow,” said Anderson. “It’s slow enough to where the U.S. may lose its competitive edge as companies go overseas to certify things. We used to be the premier organization for certification, and now you look at Amazon and Google with their unmanned aircraft vehicles, they are going to other areas of the world to fly them. … The majority of people don’t think (the FAA program) is going to happen for five to 10 years.”

    GAMI began working on unleaded fuel years before the FAA program was born. During an airshow two years ago in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Anderson and Embry-Riddle’s chief academic officer Richard Heist came to Brawley with the idea of forming a research partnership.

    “They (Embry-Riddle) wanted to be good neighbors,” Brawley said. “And they wanted to try and find an early solution so they could get away from leaded fuel at their flight school. Embry-Riddle came on board and agreed to do 150-hour engine tests on one of their airplanes.”

    Brawley said GAMI turned down opportunities to participate in the taxpayer-funded effort because it would have required them to start from scratch.

    “At this point, we are a long way down the road and Embry-Riddle has been enormously helpful in getting us down the road,” he said. “I’m actually pretty optimistic that there is a viable, workable solution to solving this problem and the process that we are going through is the right way to get there. …But it’s going to take a while.”
    It’s ultimately in the hands of the FAA.

    “The FAA has a huge responsibility in terms of making the airplanes safe and making the operations safe,” said Embry-Riddle’s dean of aviation Tim Brady. “We wish they would see things our way, but they have a greater responsibility. We live by the FAA, so they are in that sense our masters. We have to follow those rules they set out for training pilots and we may have occasional disagreements, but they have a much greater responsibility for protecting the population.”