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Small planes using leaded fuel pose a health danger. What's being done to help?

 Cheerful man walking near contemporary propeller aircraft
Daniel Torobekov
Cheerful man walking near contemporary propeller aircraft

The EPA recently declared that emissions from aircrafts that use leaded fuel pose a danger to public health. The Engineering dean at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University explains.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently declared that emissions from aircrafts that use leaded fuel pose a danger to public health.

Aircrafts that use leaded fuel are typically smaller planes like you may see fly out of Orlando Executive Airport.

Jim Gregory, dean of the College of Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, explains how that affects Central Florida and what’s being done to address the issue.

Listen to the full conversation in the player above.

Jim Gregory: Leaded fuels have been banned in cars for decades now. I think it was probably 40 years ago when that was removed from the market. It's the lead that has that negative impact on the communities around us. So we may be wondering, 'Well, why are leaded fuel still used in aviation today?' This is just a sector of aviation. It's not the jet aircraft that we fly on. That's using a different kind of fuel that's called Jet A, it's kind of like kerosene that does not have lead in it. But this would be the smaller single-engine, or twin-engine, piston-powered engine aircraft that are flying around. You see them used for flight training in a lot of places; and generally small, four-people aircraft, something of that size, are using piston-powered engines that run off of leaded fuels.

We still use leaded fuels in aviation today because the engines were designed 80 years ago, and they needed that type of a fuel chemistry to run reliably. Safety is so important in aviation. So we still have to make sure that these engines run safely. It's the same technology, amazingly, from roughly 80 years ago. That's why we're still running off of leaded fuels. Now, what do we do about that? That's the big question.

WMFE: It sounds like this leaded fuel is fuel that we would find in planes at maybe Embry-Riddle, where the students are practicing or maybe Orlando Executive Airport, where we see a lot of those smaller planes and pilots practicing landing and taking off. So with that said - and those are airports that are surrounded by neighborhoods and residential areas - how are these fuels impacting the health of our region right now?

Gregory: It's going to really depend on the frequency of flights and how much traffic that there is. The EPA report documents that it has a negative impact. Now it's difficult to connect the dots and to say it's going to be this health impact. We just know that it's not helpful. It's kind of like, we should eat our vegetables, too, and that's really important for being a healthy person. So it's difficult to say this is what's going to happen, but we do know that we want to reduce the amount of use of leaded fuels.

Jim Gregory is the Dean of the College of Engineering at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
Daryl LaBello
Jim Gregory is the dean of the College of Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

I'm pleased to say that the technical community, and Embry-Riddle is leading the way, is 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 been working on helping demonstrate that the unleaded fuels are just as safe as the leaded fuels. Now, it's just a matter of getting it out there, the distribution networks, to all these airports across the country such that we can use these unleaded fuels. As we move in that way as a community, we'll be making healthier environments around the airports.

WMFE: It sounds like there's movement in the right direction to get away from leaded fuel. As that movement happens, could this potentially impact commercial airplane sales in any way?

Gregory: I don't think it'll have an impact on commercial air travel tickets that we'd pay to go visit our family, for example, because that's all on a very different kind of fuel. But also, we're looking at improving emissions for the type of fuels that are used on jet aircraft as well, the aerospace community at large, toward sustainable aviation fuels. SAF is what they're called, and basically based off of biomass instead of fossil fuels.

The whole community at large for aviation is looking toward more sustainable practices to reduce this environmental impact. But, the aviation committee is looking at other concepts besides burning fuels, toward electric aircraft, or even airplanes that are based off of hydrogen.

The beautiful thing about hydrogen is that when you burn it, it produces water. Think about that, that's something that we would love to have more of. We don't worry about putting water out into the atmosphere. As we move in that direction, it's a lot of technical hurdles to get hydrogen onboard an airplane. You basically have to chill it and compress it, and find safe ways of handling it. But the there are some paths forward.

The whole idea here is to maintain this stellar safety record that we have in aviation while also being environmentally responsible. That's the key challenge, and that's why it's been a hard road for the aerospace industry to achieve that, because safety is so important.

WMFE: I know you said that you all are working on a solution at Embry-Riddle, but can you tell me a little bit more about what's being done to fix this problem now that it's been determined that this is an issue?

Gregory: Part of that safety, proving out the safety of the fuels, is we collaborated with a company that was a manufacturer of some of these alternative fuels, and ran the fuel for many hundreds of hours in an aircraft engine, in flight and in ground testing, to prove out that, 'Hey, this works just fine. It's not going to have an adverse impact on the engine.' That's one example of creating the technical data that the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] would need to be able to say, 'yeah, that fuel is going to be okay.' And ultimately, that came just very recently from the FAA, even that safety approval to say that this fuel is OK to use, that it's safe. So that's just one example, but we also have students who are working on an electric aircraft project.

So it's a lot of fun, where they're working on the battery pack design and integration. They're working on the power electronics to drive it all in a smart way, the electric motor and integrating all of that into an airplane. We've got a fun project where they've gotten it to the point all the way to where they're taxiing it around the airport. Next steps will be to get that up into the air and to really show that students can lead the way in creating cool aircraft designs that are environmentally friendly.

Here in Volusia County, we have one company, it's called Veredego, and they're specifically focused on green aviation propulsion systems in particular. They're basically combining a battery with a generator. It's called hybrid electric. Many of us drive hybrid cars, for example, and applying that to an airplane. It's a great technology development. It's important because battery technology is not where we want it to be yet in terms of the amount of energy they can get out of a given weight of battery. So having a hybrid solution really is a good stepping stone. So this one company Veredego here in Volusia County, in Central Florida is just doing amazing work that is transforming the aerospace industry. So it's a lot of the innovations happening right here in Central Florida.

WMFE: When do you think we might see more hybrid planes or might actually go electric with planes? How far down the line do you think that is?

Gregory: It's coming up sooner than we think. There's some smaller airplanes doing vertical takeoff and landing, and short takeoff and landing that are electric or hybrid electric. Those are getting very close. They're actually flying today in test flights, and they're working their way towards airworthiness certification, is what it's called. It's basically just the FAA saying, 'Yep, that's thumbs up, that's safe.' That maintains our safety record within aviation, but we have to be very careful in proving out that safety case. So that's what the companies are working through right now is to prove out that these are safe vehicles. So we'll first see electric aircraft, I think, get a small scale, small vehicles. Then maybe in the long run, we'll see jet airliners that are electric or hybrid electric. It's gonna be a long time before we see that.

WMFE: Now that the EPA has made this determination, and you said that we do have a lot of these small planes that use leaded fuel here in Central Florida, how could this impact our economy now that we know the health risks that leaded fuel is coming with?

Gregory: I think it would be a mistake for us to put limits on aviation today because aviation connects us in ways like nothing else, and it would have a negative impact on our economy, a significant negative impact, if we just suddenly clamped down on aviation. It's just important for us to take responsible steps forward toward sustainable aviation without killing the economy because aviation connects us and allows people to meet for business to transport goods, and that speed of connecting with aviation is like nothing else.

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Talia Blake