We’re in the middle of another record-breaking holiday season this year, with many people flying to their destinations.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently declared that emissions from aircraft using leaded fuel pose a public health hazard.
Airplanes that use leaded fuel are typically smaller aircraft, like the ones you might see flying out of Orlando Executive Airport.
Jim Gregory is dean of the College of Engineering at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
He explains how this affects us in Central Florida and what is being done to address the problem.
Listen to the full conversation in the player above.
Jim Gregory: Leaded fuels have been banned in cars for decades. I think it was probably 40 years ago when that was taken off the market. It is the leadership that has the negative impact on the communities around us. So we might ask, “Why is leaded fuel still used in aviation today?” This is just one sector of aviation. It’s not the jet plane we fly. That is the use of a different type of fuel called Jet A, it is a bit like kerosene that does not contain lead. But these would be the smaller single or twin engine piston aircraft flying around. You see them used for flight training in a lot of places and generally small four-seater airplanes, something like that, use piston engines that run on leaded fuels. We still use leaded fuels in aviation because the engines were designed 80 years ago and they needed that kind of fuel chemistry to run reliably. Safety is so important in aviation. So we still have to ensure that these engines run safely. It is, amazingly, the same technology from about 80 years ago. That’s why we still don’t have leaded fuels anymore. What do we do about that? That’s the big question.
Talia Blake: It sounds like this leaded fuel is fuel that we would find in airplanes at Embry Riddle, where the students practice, or perhaps at Orlando Executive Airport, where we see many of those smaller airplanes and pilots practicing landing and taking off. That said, and these are airports surrounded by neighborhoods and residential areas, how do these fuels currently impact the health of our region?
Jim Gregory: It will really depend on the frequency of flights and how much traffic there is. The EPA report documents that this has a negative impact. Now it’s hard to connect the dots and say these are going to be the health consequences. We just know it doesn’t help. It’s like: we have to eat our vegetables too, and that’s very important to be a healthy person. So it’s hard to say that this will happen, but we do know that we want to reduce the use of leaded fuels. I’m happy to say that the tech community, and Embry Riddle, are leading the way in coming up with better solutions to move us away from leaded fuels. The good news is that there are other options for unleaded fuels. Embry Riddle has worked to demonstrate that unleaded fuels are just as safe as leaded fuels. Now it’s just a matter of getting it out, through the distribution networks, to all these airports across the country so that we can use these unleaded fuels. If we act this way as a community, we will create a healthier environment around the airports.
Talia Blake: It sounds like there is movement in the right direction to get rid of leaded fuel. If this move happens, could it affect commercial aircraft sales in any way?
Jim Gregory: I don’t think it will have an impact on commercial airline tickets that we would pay to visit our family, for example, because that’s all on a completely different type of fuel. But we’re also looking at improving emissions for the types of fuels that are also used in jet aircraft, in the space community as a whole, toward sustainable aviation fuels. SAF is what they are called and is actually based on biomass rather than fossil fuels. The entire aviation community at large is looking at more sustainable practices to reduce this environmental impact. But in addition to burning fuels, the aviation committee is also looking at other concepts, electric aircraft, or even hydrogen-based aircraft. The great thing about hydrogen is that when you burn it, it produces water. Think about that, that’s something we’d like to have more of. We are not concerned about releasing water into the atmosphere. As we move in that direction, there are many technical hurdles to getting hydrogen on board an aircraft. You actually have to cool it down and compress it, and find safe ways to handle it. But there are some paths forward. The whole idea here is to maintain this great safety record that we have in aviation and at the same time be environmentally friendly. That’s the key challenge, and that’s why it’s been a difficult road for the aerospace industry to achieve that, because safety is so important.
Talia Blake: I know you guys have said you’re all working on a fix at Embry Riddle, but can you tell me a little more about what’s being done to fix this issue now that it’s been identified as an issue?
Jim Gregory: Part of that safety, proving the safety of the fuels, is that we worked with a company that produced some of these alternative fuels, and we ran the fuel in an aircraft engine for many hundreds of hours, during flight and during soil tests. to prove that, “Hey, this works great. It won’t have any adverse effects on the engine.’ That’s an example of creating the technical data that the FAA would need to be able to say, “Yes, that fuel will be fine.” And ultimately, that didn’t come until very recently from the FAA, even that safety approval to say that this fuel is okay to use, that it’s safe. That’s just one example, but we also have students working on an electric aircraft project. So it’s really nice to see how they are working on the design and integration of the battery pack. They are working on the power electronics to drive it all in a smart way, the electric motor and integrating it all into an aircraft. We have a nice project where they got them to tax it at the airport. The next steps will be to get that into the air and really show that students can take the lead in creating cool airplane designs that are environmentally friendly. Here in Volusia County we have one company called Veredego and they are specifically focused on green aviation propulsion systems. They actually combine a battery with a generator. That’s called hybrid electric. For example, many of us drive hybrid cars and apply that to an airplane. It is a great technological development. It’s important because battery technology isn’t yet where we want it to be in terms of the amount of energy they can get from a given weight of battery. So having a hybrid solution is a really good stepping stone. So this one company Veredego here in Volusia County, in central Florida, is doing amazing work that is transforming the aerospace industry. So it’s a lot of the innovations that are happening here in Central Florida.
Talia Blake: When do you think we will see more hybrid aircraft or actual electric flying? How far do you think that is?
Jim Gregory: It will come sooner than we think. There are some smaller aircraft that have vertical take-off and landing, and short take-off and landing that are electric or hybrid electric. They come very close. They’re actually flying test flights today, and they’re working their way toward airworthiness certification, that’s what it’s called. It’s really just the FAA saying, “Yes, that’s thumbs up, that’s safe.” That maintains our aviation safety record, but we have to be very careful in proving that safety issue. So that’s what the companies are working on now: proving that these are safe vehicles. So we’ll see electric planes first, I think, and then small-scale, small vehicles. Then perhaps in the long term we will see jet aircraft that are electric or hybrid electric. It will be a long time before we see that.
Talia Blake: Now that the EPA has made this decision and you mentioned that here in Central Florida we have a lot of these small airplanes that use leaded fuel, how could this affect our economy now that we know the health risks associated with leaded fuel? ?
Jim Gregory: I think it would be a mistake for us to impose restrictions on aviation today, because aviation connects us uniquely, and it would have a negative impact on our economy, a significant negative impact, if we would suddenly restrict aviation. It is simply important that we take responsible steps forward towards sustainable aviation without killing the economy, because aviation connects us and allows people to meet for business to transport goods, and the speed of connection to aviation is second to none.