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The Rise of Diesel-Powered Pistons

Diamond Aircraft Industries manufactures diesel and AVGAS variants of the DA-40. Photography courtesy of Diamond Aircraft Industries. In the past decade, the amount of piston aircraft fueled by diesel has increased significantly with Diamond Aircraft Industries, Piper Aircraft, and Tecnam Aircraft unveiling diesel-powered piston aircraft. This emerging technology offers several benefits, but also a few risks. Diesel is not commonly sold at many airports; however, Jet-A can be burned in diesel engines. Jet-A can be found at most airports across the world. When turbine engines were first introduced in the 1930s, 100LL was first used. According to bp, 100LL was not the ideal fuel for turbine engines due to the low flash point and carbon deposits left behind. Diesel was tested next. It was determined that diesel was a better match due to the higher flash point and tendency to not vaporize as quickly. However, diesel gels up when cold which is problematic for aircraft that operate in cold environments. Jet-A was then created which has a high flash point and doesn't solidify at colder temperatures. Jet-A is standard for turbine aircraft while 100LL is used in piston engines, until recently. Differences between jet fuel and diesel. Graphic courtesy of bp.Piston aircraft that are powered by 100LL will experience engine failures if fueled with Jet-A. Misfuelling has decreased in frequency over the years, however, far too many fatal accidents have occurred from miscommunication between pilots and fuelers. The emerging piston engines that burn diesel and Jet-A cannot operate on 100LL. This creates a risk of misfuelling due to the unfamiliarity with this new technology. The PA-31 is an often misfueled aircraft. The fuselage is longer than most piston aircraft and is often mistaken as a turboprop. Photography courtesy of Josep Manacho of Iberian Spotters. Although misfuelling risks may increase with the transition to diesel-powered aircraft, many benefits justify the transition. Diesel and Jet-A emit less carbon into the environment than 100LL. In addition, magnetos and spark plugs are not necessary for diesel-powered aircraft. This decreases the cost of routine maintenance. Diesel engines are also more fuel-efficient. The Piper Archer DX has a range that is 326 nautical miles greater than the 100LL variant. Another benefit to diesel-powered pistons is that the engine is water-cooled as opposed to air-cooled. This allows the aircraft to climb better due to the cooler temperatures. Diesel is growing in popularity in the general aviation market because diesel/Jet-A can be found globally. 100LL is hard to find in many European and Asian countries. The European Union is phasing out 100LL because of greenhouse gas emissions. Diesel and Jet-A are more environment-friendly than 100LL and do not contain toxic lead. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is derived from biological waste and is the most environment-friendly fuel. SAF is used as a replacement for Jet-A. Although hard to find globally, SAF is a great earth-friendly alternative to Jet-A. It is safe to say that diesel is here to stay in general aviation. As the world transitions to this technology, an increase in misfuelling is inevitable. This risk can be mitigated with placards, sumping fuel tanks after fueling, and increased communication between pilots and line staff. Diesel-burning engines emit less carbon waste and can combust SAF to become even more environmentally safe. This is a step in the direction towards a more sustainable future in aviation.
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