|Ian Walsh is the vice president and general manager of Lycoming Engines.|
I love movies! I especially enjoy it when writers use their imaginations to create futuristic technology. For example, do you remember 1985’s Back to the Future with Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly? He finds himself traveling back in time with the help of a DeLorean car that’s converted to a time machine by his mad scientist friend, played by Christopher Lloyd. The best part comes in the end, when Lloyd returns from the future in the car, which is now an advanced personal aircraft, and loads the engine, equipped with a food-processor-sized fusion reactor, with garbage—its fuel source. He then excitedly exclaims to McFly, “The future is incredible!”
But how incredible will the future truly be? The future is now! Just look at the recent and rapid infusion of advanced technologies in general aviation (GA). Who would have thought that in the last decade, GA piston airplanes would become sleek composite designs equipped with GPS-driven glass cockpits, touch screens, voice commands, all-axis autopilots, flight directors and synthetic vision? Today’s technological innovations and advancements evolve from creators and designers who “see” possibilities and work to make them a reality. GA manufacturers are on this path more than ever before. Facilitating this path forward are rapid advances in computing technology and the robustness of electronic hardware and software design methods.
What’s also happening is a heightened awareness of how advancements in technology may improve our environment. There are clear and present pressures from environmental advocacy organizations and the global population to hold GA more accountable for preservation efforts, such as greenhouse gas emissions and, more specifically, the elimination of lead in avgas. Lycoming Engines and GA piston manufacturers are prepared to rise to the occasion.
Several major environmental and economic factors are affecting the continued availability of 100LL. For one, there’s a dwindling global market for tetra-ethyl-lead (TEL) additive for 100LL avgas. It also faces environmental challenges regarding its transportation. The global demand for all types of gasoline is growing faster than refinery production capacity. The distribution of 100LL avgas raises environmental concerns because it contains lead and is part of an aging distribution infrastructure that’s facing significant investment decisions. The production and distribution of 100LL is low in volume relative to the world’s automotive fuels, both gasoline and diesel, which makes it a more expensive process and, therefore, difficult for oil companies to produce without escalating prices.
As a result, there’s a healthy competition amongst all engine manufacturers, both automotive and aviation, to explore alternative fuels based on environmentally friendly sources of energy. For example, most people think that today’s GA piston engines aren’t designed to handle multi-unleaded fuels. What most people may not know is that in the last decade, Lycoming has worked hard to ensure that the metallurgical makeup of key components are compatible with unleaded gasoline. Recently, Lycoming announced an unleaded automotive gasoline approval program for its standard compression O-360 and IO-360 product lines. To keep things safe for aviation, we’ll need to state requirements within the scope of existing automobile fuel standards, as “mogas” from the pump varies by geographic location according to EPA regulations. From a metallurgical wear and tear position, a Lycoming engine doesn’t need lead anymore. The bigger concern, quite frankly, is what the environmental movement—with the best of intents—is advocating for inclusion in both gasolines and heavy fuels. For gasoline, ethanol is the cocktail mixer of choice, and that carries a lot of complications. Also, the removal of TEL will result in lower-octane fuel and will impact higher-performance engines. At some point, an engine won’t hold power as the fuel properties degrade.
The longer 100LL aviation gas is the last remaining leaded fuel in transportation, the more likely it becomes a target for elimination. That’s not to say that 100LL is going to disappear, but eventually the lead in avgas is going away. That means a new unleaded aviation gas will need to be specified in the near future for use in new and existing piston aircraft. Several GA associations and agencies are leading the charge to identify a future specification for unleaded avgas. They’re also assisting in the application and transition to alternative and environmentally friendly fuels. Manufacturers of aviation engines need to consider these forces and the future needs of the GA industry. At Lycoming, we recognize these forces and are working hard to provide future solutions that will meet the diverse and changing needs of alternative and environmentally friendly fuels.
Lycoming is committed to providing innovative solutions that meet or exceed the needs of our customers who operate all over the world. Because we’re a global industry, fuel pricing, taxes and availability are incredibly diverse and, in many cases, can create painful issues for customers. Providing solutions that safely address the issues in the long term is a foundational step in helping to grow GA and holding ourselves more accountable to the growing and shared concerns about our environment.
Back to the future. Imagine an airplane in which the wind, sun and normally wasted heat actually power all of the onboard electronics. Imagine an airplane that will automatically shutdown certain cylinders and optimize power and fuel burn when the aircraft reaches cruise. Imagine an airplane in which, no matter where you land, the fuselage and engine are “smart” and can inform the pilot as to its projected performance based on fuel type. What if you could even mix fuels and the engine wouldn’t care? It would just know!
Stay tuned! Advancements in engine systems are here now, and more are coming soon that will enable all of the above. The engine is indeed going to rapidly become integrated into the whole operating system of the airplane—harmonious with the avionics, airframe sensors, on-board computers, external environment and the pilot.
We may be a ways off from converting typical household garbage into fuel for our GA piston planes, but it may not be too farfetched to recycle and refine materials, turning them into economically viable, environmentally friendly, useable piston aviation fuels. It’s time we truly leverage the power of our imaginations and create technology that not only advances our industry, but also preserves our environment.