Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=97989
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 6:20:43 AM CST
Sara Sargent/Medill News Service
America has grown accustomed to the idea of running cars on corn, but is it ready for planes to run on garbage?
Swift Enterprises Ltd., an Indiana-based energy development company, believes the answer to that question is yes. The company is betting that its renewable general aviation fuel, made from landfill waste, sorghum, algae and wood chips, among other feedstocks, will provide one small solution to America’s big energy crisis.
Swift Enterprises still has some hurdles to clear before the fuel is ready for the commercial market, but with plans to develop unleaded renewable fuels for jets, autos and trucks, it’s begun to attract interest from would-be customers.
“What we’ve heard sounds very interesting, but there are a lot of open questions,” said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which has been briefed by Swift on the new fuel. “An alternative that has the potential to lower prices—who knows if it will, that’s one of the questions—is something we’re interested in exploring.”
Although Swift Enterprises’s biofuel currently costs $60 per gallon to produce at its small facility, the company estimates that once it’s in full-scale production with switchgrass or sorghum, the cost per gallon will drop to about $1.80 – about half the current cost to produce a gallon of petroleum-based aviation fuel.
The general aviation industry, which includes police helicopters, crop dusters, private fliers, corporate jets and charters, is looking for alternatives to petroleum-based aviation gas, or avgas, which is only produced in small amounts by petroleum refiners as a “boutique" fuel.
Dancy said that has led to high avgas prices for the estimated 225,000 active general aviation aircraft in the U.S. While commercial airlines are cutting capacity, the Federal Aviation Administration has projected a 6 percent increase in general aviation by 2009.
“We recognize that, at some point, it’s going to become uneconomical for the petroleum industry to continue making leaded avgas and there needs to be an alternative,” Dancy said.
Swift Enterprises opened its doors in 2001 at the Purdue Research Park in West Lafayette, Ind. as a research firm with major contracts from NASA and the U.S. Navy. Publicity-shy founders John and Mary Rusek, who declined to be interviewed, are for the first time taking one of their developed products to market.
The duo sees Swift Fuels, the company’s renewable general aviation tetraethyl lead-free fuel, as a needed solution for an industry hungry for an energy panacea.
“We have the only resulting success when it comes to matching or exceeding petroleum in a high-octane aviation fuel,” said Todd Burrough, spokesman for Swift Enterprises.
Burrough says Swift Fuel outperforms petroleum by 15 percent, which means if a petroleum-based fuel took an aircraft 1,000 miles, Swift Fuel will allow it to go 1,150 miles. He added that in the company’s own test runs, the fuel has matched all of the 44 specifications of the petroleum-based avgas currently in use.
But in the past, companies touting a so-called energy silver bullet have come and gone, often because a fuel’s viability depends on whether it can underprice the current market option and whether its performance and safety pass muster with regulators.
“If a company hopes to succeed, it all depends on the price: what the current market price is and what it costs to produce,” said Energy Information Administration expert Tancred Lidderdale.
Swift is also in the process of getting approvals from ASTM International, the FAA and the Environmental Protection Agency.
ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, sets technical standards, and in order for Swift to convince pilots, engine manufacturers and the rest of the general aviation industry that its fuel will work properly, it must earn ASTM approval.
“What has to happen is the person who wants to provide the fuel needs to present a technical case for their fuel, which means they need to demonstrate that their product matches the petroleum product already in the field,” explained Stanford Seto, chairman of an ASTM aviation subcommittee.
Right now, Swift is waiting on the ASTM to allow it the opportunity to be a candidate fuel. “We’re hoping we can do that in Tampa in December during the full meeting of the board,” Burrough said. Final approval could come as early as next June.
The viability of Swift Fuel is also currently under review by the FAA’s research center, which provides independent test research. The FAA has approximately 150 gallons of Swift Fuel at its laboratories in Washington and is in the process of executing a series of power-performance evaluations.
Testing began in June and there is still much more to be done, according to David Atwood, a project engineer with the FAA fuels program.
“It does show promise,” Atwood said. “But they do have such a long road to go.”
In addition to cost factors, Swift’s decision to develop aviation fuel was influenced by a potential Environmental Protection Agency ban on leaded aviation fuels.
Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, but an amendment banning leaded fuel for road vehicles did not take effect until 1996.
But unlike auto gas—with unleaded replacements such as 87-octane and 93-octane gas—there was no replacement for leaded avgas, so Congress gave it a pass.
EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said the organization is currently reviewing a petition from Friends of the Earth that calls for a ban on leaded avgas. Milbourn said no decision has been made on the petition and she declined to predict the outcome.
For those in the general aviation industry who have heard of Swift, and those who soon will, a close eye will be kept on the company’s progress. If all approvals come through, and Swift delivers on its promises of lower costs and better performance, Swift Fuel does have the potential to be the next big thing in avgas.
“I’ve not heard anything from our supplier about such a thing or read about it in the trade journals, but it certainly sounds like something I want to look into,” said Mike Luman, owner of Lumanair Inc., an aviation services company operating out of Chicago/Aurora Municipal Airport. “I’d be for anything that can benefit the environment and cut costs if possible.”
It is just that attitude in general aviation that has Swift Enterprises predicting that its fuel, if given the chance, will have a transformational impact on the industry. If the company does clear all hurdles, that impact will most likely start to be seen in 2010 or 2011, “at which point you would start to see a massive change,” Burrough said.