Types of Aviation Fuel

Each aircraft engine is designed to burn a certain fuel. Use only the fuel specified by the manufacturer. Mixing fuels is not permitted. There are two basic types of fuel: reciprocating-engine fuel (also known as gasoline or AVGAS) and turbine-engine fuel (also known as jet fuel or kerosene).

Reciprocating Engine Fuel—AVGAS


Reciprocating engines burn gasoline, also known as AVGAS. It is specially formulated for use in aircraft engines. Combustion releases energy in the fuel, which is converted into the mechanical motion of the engine. AVGAS of any variety is primarily a hydrocarbon compound refined from crude oil by fractional distillation. Aviation gasoline is different from the fuel refined for use in turbine-powered aircraft. AVGAS is very volatile and extremely flammable, with a low flash point. Turbine fuel is a kerosene-type fuel with a much higher flash point so it is less flammable.

Aircraft engines must perform throughout a wide range of demanding conditions. They must be lightweight and produce significant power in a wide range of atmospheric and engine operating temperatures. The gasoline used must support uninterrupted combustion throughout this range and must truly burn rather than explode or detonate. This ensures maximum power derivation and minimal engine wear. Over the years, AVGAS has been available in different formulas. These mostly correlate to how much energy can be produced without the fuel detonating. Larger, high-compression engines require fuel with a greater amount of potential power production without detonation than smaller low-compression engines.

Volatility

One of the most important characteristics of an aircraft fuel is its volatility. Volatility is a term used to describe how readily a substance changes from liquid into a vapor. For reciprocating engines, highly volatile fuel is desired. Liquid gasoline delivered to the engine induction system carburetor must vaporize in the carburetor to burn in the engine. Fuel with low volatility vaporizes slowly. This can cause hard engine starting, slow warm-up, and poor acceleration. It can also cause uneven fuel distribution to the cylinders and excessive dilution of the oil in the crankcase in engines equipped with oil dilution systems. However, fuel can also be too volatile, causing detonation and vapor lock. AVGAS is a blend of numerous hydrocarbon compounds, each with different boiling points and volatility. A straight chain of volatile compounds creates a fuel that vaporizes easily for starting, but also delivers power through the acceleration and power ranges of the engine.

Vapor Lock 

Vapor lock is a condition in which AVGAS vaporizes in the fuel line or other components between the fuel tank and the carburetor. This typically occurs on warm days on aircraft with engine-driven fuel pumps that suck fuel from the tank(s). Vapor lock can be caused by excessively hot fuel, low pressure, or excessive turbulence of the fuel traveling through the fuel system. In each case, liquid fuel vaporizes prematurely and blocks the flow of liquid fuel to the carburetor. 

Aircraft gasoline is refined to have a vapor pressure be between 5.5 pounds per square inch (psi) and 7.0 psi at 100 °F. At this pressure, an aircraft fuel system is designed to deliver liquid fuel to the carburetor when drawn out of the tank by an engine-driven fuel pump. But temperatures in the fuel system can exceed 100 °F under the engine cowl on a hot day. Fuel may vaporize before it reaches the carburetor, especially if it is drawn up a line under a low pressure, or if it swirls while navigating a sharp bend in the tubing. To make matters worse, when an aircraft climbs rapidly, the pressure on the fuel in the tank decreases while the fuel is still warm. This causes an increase in fuel vaporization that can also lead to vapor lock. 

Various steps can be taken to prevent vapor lock. The use of boost pumps located in the fuel tank that force pressurized liquid fuel to the engine is most common. 

Carburetor Icing 

As fuel vaporizes, it draws energy from its surroundings to change state from a liquid to a vapor. This can be a problem if water is present. When fuel vaporizes in the carburetor, water in the fuel-air mixture can freeze and deposit inside the carburetor and fuel induction system. The fuel discharge nozzle, throttle valve, venturi, or simply the walls of the induction system all can develop ice. As the ice builds, it restricts the fuel-air flow and causes loss of engine power. In severe cases, the engine stops running. [Figure 1]


aircraft piston reciprocating engine ice formation on carburetor
Figure 1
An example of common areas where ice can form on a carburetor. The evaporation of volatile fuel takes energy from its surroundings to change state. As it does, water in the fuel-air mixture condenses and freezes

Carburetor icing is most common at ambient temperatures of 30–40 °F but can occur at much higher temperatures, especially in humid conditions. Most aircraft are equipped with carburetor heating to help eliminate this threat caused by the high volatility of the fuel and the presence of moisture. [Figure 2]

aircraft engine deicing system
Figure 2
To combat carburetor icing, air preheated by the exhaust manifold is directed into the carburetor via a push/pull control in the cockpit. The control changes the position of the air diverter butterfly in the carburetor heat valve box

Aromatic Fuels

The aviation gasoline market is a relatively small part of the overall gasoline market. AVGAS producers are few. In years past, when this was less the case, considerable quantities of aromatic hydrocarbons were sometimes added to increase the rich mixture performance of AVGAS. It was used mainly in high horsepower reciprocating engines, such as military and transport category aircraft. Special hoses and seals were required for use of aromatic fuels. These additives are no longer available.

Detonation

Detonation is the rapid, uncontrolled explosion of fuel due to high pressure and temperature in the combustion chamber. The fuel-air charge ignites and explodes before the ignition system spark lights it. Occasionally, detonation occurs when the fuel is ignited via the spark plug but explodes before it is finished burning.

The engine is not designed to withstand the forces caused by detonation. It is made to turn smoothly by having the fuel-air mixture burn in the combustion chamber and propagate directionally across the top of the piston. When it does so, a smooth transfer of the force developed by the burning fuel pushes the piston down. Detonation of fuel instead sends a shock wave of force against the top of the piston, which in turn is transferred through the piston to the piston pin, to the connecting rod, and to the crankshaft. Valve operation is also affected by this shock wave. In short, the explosion of fuel detonating in the combustion chamber transfers the energy contained in the fuel harshly throughout the entire engine, causing damage. 

Aviation fuels are refined and blended to avoid detonation. Each has an ignition point and burn speed at specific fuel-air mixture ratios that manufacturers rely on to design engines that can operate without detonation. An engine experiencing detonation in the field should be investigated. A pinging or knocking sound is a sign of detonation. This is often more difficult to detect in an aircraft than in an automobile due to propeller tip noise. Detonation causes an increase in cylinder head temperature. 

If ignored or allowed to continue, detonation can eventually lead to engine failure. Causes of detonation include incorrect fuel, already high engine temperature at high power settings, such as takeoff, preignition of the fuel, extended operations with an extremely lean mixture, and operation at high revolutions per minute (rpm) with low airspeed. 

Surface Ignition and Preignition 

A sharp deposit or incandescent hot spot in the combustion chamber can cause fuel to ignite before the spark plug lights it. Detonation can cause such an area to form as can a cracked spark plug insulator or a sharp valve edge. The result could be ignition of the fuel before the piston is at the proper place during its movement toward top dead center of the compression stroke. The extended burn period of the fuel can increase temperatures and pressure in the combustion chamber to the point at which the fuel detonates. The repeated incorrect flame propagation and detonation can cause serious engine damage and eventual engine failure. [Figure 3]


Types of Aviation Fuel
Figure 3. Preignition can cause detonation and damage to the engine

Maintenance personnel should ensure that the correct fuel is being used, and that the engine is being operated correctly. Spark plugs and valves should be checked for wear. Signs of deposits and detonation must also be investigated and addressed. 

Octane and Performance Number Rating 

Octane ratings and performance numbers are given to fuels to describe their resistance to detonation. Fuels with high critical pressure and high octane or performance numbers have the greatest resistance. A referencing system is used to rate the fuel. A mixture of two hydrocarbons, iso-octane (C8H18) and heptane (C7H16), is used. Various ratios of the two hydrocarbons in a mixture result in proportional antidetonation properties. The more iso-octane there is in the mixture, the higher its resistance is to detonation. 

When a fuel has the same critical pressure as a reference mixture of these two hydrocarbons, it is said to have an octane rating that is the same as the percentage of the iso­octane is this reference mixture. An 80 octane fuel has the same resistance to detonation as an 80 percent iso-octane, 20 percent heptane mixture; a 90 octane fuel has the same resistance to detonation as a 90 percent iso-octane, 10 percent heptane mixture; and a 100 octane fuel has the same resistance to detonation as 100 percent pure iso-octane. So, by comparing a fuel’s tendency to detonate to reference mixtures of iso-octane and heptane, octane ratings from 80 to 100 can be established. The highest octane fuel possible with this system of measurement is 100 octane fuel. 

To increase antidetonation characteristics of fuel, substances can be added. Tetraethyl lead (TEL) is the most common additive that increases the critical pressure and temperature of a fuel. However, additional additives, such as ethylene dibromide and tricresyl phosphate, must be also be added so that the TEL does not leave solid deposits in the combustion chamber. 

The amount of TEL added to a fuel can be increased to raise the antidetonation characteristics from 80 to the 100 octane level and higher. References to octane characteristics above 100 percent iso-octane are made by referencing the antidetonation properties of the fuel to a mixture of pure iso-octane and specific quantities of TEL. The specific mixtures of iso-octane and TEL are assigned arbitrary octane numbers above 100. In addition to increasing the antidetonation characteristics of a fuel, TEL also lubricates the engine valves.

Performance numbers are also used to characterize the antidetonation characteristics of fuel. A performance number consists of two numbers (e.g., 80/87, 100/130, 115/145) in which higher numbers indicate a higher resistance to detonation. The first number indicates the octane rating of the fuel in a lean fuel-air mixture, and the second number indicates the octane rating of the fuel in a rich mixture. 

Due to the small size of the worldwide aviation gasoline market, a single 100 octane low-lead fuel (100LL) is desired as the only AVGAS for all aircraft with reciprocating engines. This presents problems in engines originally designed to run on 80/87 fuel; the low lead 100 octane fuel still contains more lead than the 80 octane fuel. Spark plug fouling has been common and lower times between overhaul have occurred. Other engines designed for 9 1/96 fuel or 100/13 0 fuel operate satisfactorily on 100LL, which contains 2 milliliters of TEL per gallon (enough to lubricate the valves and control detonation). For environmental purposes, AVGAS with no TEL is sought for the aviation fleet of the future. 

Fuel Identification 

Aircraft and engine manufacturers designate approved fuels for each aircraft and engine. Consult manufacturer data and use only those fuel specified therein. 

The existence of more than one fuel makes it imperative that fuel be positively identified and never introduced into a fuel system that is not designed for it. The use of dyes in fuel helps aviators monitor fuel type. 100LL AVGAS is the AVGAS most readily available and used in the United States. It is dyed blue. Some 100 octane or 100/130 fuel may still be available, but it is dyed green. 

80/87 AVGAS is no longer available. It was dyed red. Many supplemental type certificates have been issued to engine and engine/airframe combinations that permit the use of automobile gasoline in engines originally designed for red AVGAS. A relatively new AVGAS fuel, 82UL (unleaded), has been introduced for use by this group of relatively low compression engines. It is dyed purple. 

115/145 AVGAS is a fuel designed for large, high performance reciprocating engines from the World War II era. It is available only by special order from refineries, and is also dyed purple in color. 

The color of fuel may be referred to in older maintenance manuals. All grades of jet fuel are colorless or straw colored. This distinguishes them from AVGAS of any kind that contains dye of some color. Should AVGAS fuel not be of a recognizable color, the cause should be investigated.

Some color change may not affect the fuel. Other times, a color change may be a signal that fuels have been mixed or contaminated in some way. Do not release an aircraft for flight with unknown fuel onboard. 

Identifying fuel and ensuring the correct fuel is delivered into storage tanks, fuel trucks, and aircraft fuel tanks is a process aided by labeling. Decals and markings using the same colors as the AVGAS colors are used. Delivery trucks and hoses are marked as are aircraft tank fuel caps and fill areas. Jet fuel fill hose nozzles are sized too large to fit into an AVGAS tank fill opening. Figure 4 shows examples of color-coded fuel labeling. 

aviation fuel color code
Figure 4. Color coded labeling and markings used on fueling equipment

Purity 

The use of filters in the various stages of transfer and storage of AVGAS removes most foreign sediment from the fuel. Once in the aircraft fuel tanks, debris should settle into the fuel tank drain sumps to be removed before flight. Filters and strainers in the aircraft fuel system can successfully capture any remaining sediment. 

The purity of aviation gasoline is compromised most often by water. Water also settles into the sumps given enough time. However, water is not removed by the aircraft’s filters and strainers as easily as solid particles. It can enter the fuel even when the aircraft is parked on the ramp with the fuel caps in place. Air in the tank vapor space above the liquid fuel contains water vapor. Temperature fluctuations cause the water vapor to condense on the inner surface of the tanks and settle into the liquid fuel. Eventually, this settles to the sump, but some can remain in the fuel when the aircraft is to be flown. 

Proper procedure for minimizing water entering aircraft fuel is to fill the aircraft fuel tanks immediately after each flight. This minimizes the size of the vapor space above the liquid fuel and the amount of air and associated water vapor present in the tank. When excessive water is drawn into the fuel system, it passes through carburetor jets where it can interrupt the smooth operation of the engine(s). 

If water is entrained or dissolved in the fuel, it cannot be removed by draining the sump(s) and filter bowls before flight. However, there may be enough water for icing to be a concern. As the aircraft climbs and fuel is drawn out of the tanks, the fuel supply cools. Entrained and dissolved water in the fuel is forced out of solution and becomes free water. If cool enough, ice crystals form rather than liquid water. These can clog filters and disrupt fuel flow to the engines. Both AVGAS and jet fuel have this type of water impurity issue leading to icing that must be monitored and treated.

Fuel anti-ice additives can be added to the bulk fuel and also directly into the aircraft fuel tank, usually during refueling. These are basically diethylene glycol solutions that work as antifreeze. They dissolve in free water as it comes out of the fuel and lower its freezing point.

Turbine Engine Fuels 


Aircraft with turbine engines use a type of fuel different from that of reciprocating aircraft engines. Commonly known as jet fuel, turbine engine fuel is designed for use in turbine engines and should never be mixed with aviation gasoline or introduced into the fuel system of a reciprocating aircraft engine fuel system.

The characteristics of turbine engine fuels are significantly different from those of AVGAS. Turbine engine fuels are hydrocarbon compounds of higher viscosity with much lower volatility and higher boiling points than gasoline. In the distillation process from crude oil, the kerosene cut from which jet fuel is made condenses at a higher temperature than the naphtha or gasoline cuts. The hydrocarbon molecules of turbine engine fuels are composed of more carbon than are in AVGAS. [Figure 4]

aviation fuel and normal fuel difference
Figure 4
Petroleum products are produced by distillation. Various fractions condense and are collected at different temperatures that correspond to the height of collection in the distillation tower. As can be seen, there are significant differences between turbine engine fuel and ordinary AVGAS

Turbine engine fuels sustain a continuous flame inside the engine. They typically have a higher sulfur content than gasoline, and various inhibitors are commonly added them. Used to control corrosion, oxidation, ice, and microbial and bacterial growth, these additives often are already in the fuel when it arrives at the airport for use.

Turbine Fuel Volatility

The choice of turbine engine fuel reflects consideration of conflicting factors. While it is desirable to use a fuel that is low in volatility to resist vapor lock and evaporation while in the aircraft’s fuel tanks, turbine engine aircraft operate in cold environments. Turbine engines must start readily, and be able to restart while in flight. Fuel with high volatility makes this easier.

AVGAS has a relatively low maximum vapor pressure compared to automotive gasoline—only 7 psi. But the vapor pressure of Jet A is only 0.125 psi at standard atmospheric conditions. Jet B, a blend of Jet A and gasoline, has higher volatility with a vapor pressure between 2 and 3 psi. 

Turbine Engine Fuel Types 

Three basic turbine engine fuel types are available worldwide, although some countries have their own unique fuels. The first is Jet A. It is the most common turbine engine fuel available in the continental United States. Globally, Jet A-1 is the most popular. Both Jet A and Jet A-1 are fractionally distilled in the kerosene range. They have low volatility and low vapor pressure. Flashpoints range between 110 °F and 150 °F. Jet A freezes at –40 °F and Jet A-1 freezes at –52.6 °F. Most engine operations manuals permit the use of either Jet A or Jet A-1. 

The third basic type of turbine engine fuel available is Jet B. It is a wide-cut fuel that is basically a blend of kerosene and gasoline. Its volatility and vapor pressure reflect this and fall between Jet A and AVGAS. Jet B is primarily available in Alaska and Canada due to its low freezing point of approximately –58 °F, and its higher volatility yields better cold weather performance. 

Turbine Engine Fuel Issues 

Purity issues related to turbine engine fuels are unique. While AVGAS experiences similar issues of solid particle contamination and icing concerns, the presence of water and fuel-consuming microbes is more prominent in jet fuel, which has different molecular structure and retains water in two principal ways. Some water is dissolved into the fuel. Other water also is entrained in the fuel, which is more viscous than AVGAS. The greater presence of water in jet fuel allows microbes to assemble, grow, and live on the fuel. 

Since turbine engine fuels always contain water, microbial contamination is always a threat. The large tanks of many turbine engine aircraft have numerous areas where water can settle and microbes can flourish. Areas between the fuel tank and any water that may come to rest in the bottom of the tanks is where the microbes thrive. These microorganisms form a bio-film that can clog filters, corrode tank coatings, and degrade the fuel. They can be controlled somewhat with the addition of biocides to the fuel. [Figure 5] Anti-ice additives are also known to inhibit bacterial growth. 

biocides to aviation fuel
Figure 5. Biocides, such as these, are often added to jet fuel to kill microbes that live on hydrocarbons

Since the microbes are sustained by fuel and water, best practices must be followed to keep the water in fuel to a minimum. Avoid having fuel in a storage tank for a prolonged period of time on or off the aircraft. Drain sumps and monitor the fuel for settled water. Investigate all incidents of water discovered in the fuel. In addition to water in jet fuel supporting the growth of microorganisms, it also poses a threat of icing. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for fuel handling procedures and fuel system maintenance.