The U.S. government's sputtering search for an unleaded fuel for piston-powered general aviation aircraft should focus on Sweden, where the stuff has been made since 1991.
At least that's the opinion of Lars Hjelmberg, founder of Sweden's Hjelmco Oil. He contends that more than 90 percent of the world's piston aircraft can safely use his unleaded fuel, called 91/96 UL.
It's been in production for 21 years and is widely available at airports in Sweden and Western Europe. Engine makers such as Continental and Lycoming have cleared 91/96 UL for use in many products that power U.S. aircraft. Hjelmberg said it's rated at nearly 100 octane and can be safely used in planes such as the ubiquitous Cessna 172 and twin-engine aircraft like the Piper Twin Comanche and Piper Seminole.
The oil company chief presented his case at Santa Monica Airport's on Saturday and said the presentation can be seen online this week at hjelmco.com.
Sixteen years after the U.S. banned lead in automobile gasoline, the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Aviation Administration say they're still searching for a viable unleaded aviation gasoline, known as avgas.
Just two days before Hjelmberg's presentation, the FAA announced its plan to find a non-leaded aircraft fuel for most piston-engine private planes by 2018, to replace the current standard leaded fuel, 100LL.
Hjelmberg contends the FAA wants to wait for an unleaded fuel that could be used by 99 percent of piston-powered planes rather than the 90 percent that could use his company's product now.
"Why do we have to reinvent the wheel, when the solution is already here?" Hjelmberg asked rhetorically.
He predicted that, over time, the other 10 percent of the piston fleet would benefit from improved engines, along with research to further boost the octane of unleaded AVGAS. That would leave just a tiny fraction of piston planes still using leaded fuel, such as historic military or racing aircraft.
The EPA's most recent data, from 2008, says private piston-powered planes account for about 57 percent of lead emissions in the U.S. Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity announced it will sue the EPA to enforce lead emission standards. Another group, Friends of the Earth, filed a similar suit in March.
Hjelmberg acknowledged the challenge of making and distributing unleaded avgas in the U.S. He said the effort that brought about a ban on leaded car gas provides a model.
"It was not the oil companies that brought it to a head, it was the politicians," he said. "They have to ask for it and create incentives—reducing or eliminating taxes on the [unleaded] fuel for a certain period, for example."
"The FAA should do something similar as in Europe to help create the market," he added.
Hjelmberg's presentation was applauded by two audience members who have sharp disagreements on most aviation issues.
"I'd like to see it get going," said flight school owner Joe Justice. "Overall, lead is bad [public relations] and no company can survive a long time with bad p.r."
John Fairweather, head of Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic, said he hopes the Santa Monica Airport can play a role in the push for unleaded avgas.
"Let's just all agree that there's health impacts... and there's a good reason to get rid of all this stuff," he said.