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The World Is Free of Leaded Gasoline, but Don't Celebrate Because It's Complicated
Open the window and take a deep breath. Can you smell the clean air already? At the time of writing, the world has been free of leaded gasoline for five days now. Or is it? Sorry, but it is not, as leaded gasoline can still be purchased across the globe, but not from regular filling stations, and it is not meant to be used on public roads. Second, air quality does not work that way. 

The World Is Free of Leaded Gasoline, but Don't Celebrate Because It's Complicated

Display of fuel pump in the UKPerson refilling fuel tank with dieselFuel pumps at refueling stationPerson refilling gas tank with "Super" gasoline, a type of Premium gasPump working to extract crude oil
So, while the world is officially free of leaded gasoline for cars, this kind of gasoline is still widely used across the globe in various forms. There is a common denominator here, as it is mostly used in a particular area, and cars are not it. 

Before we go into that, we can still celebrate just a bit, as removing gasoline with lead from the last country that still had it is a big win for the world in terms of health. Leaded gasoline was invented over a century ago, and those who first made it found that lead was bad for people's health. 

Even low-level exposure is bad for any person's health, and it affects every system in the body. The first companies that experimented with it had employees die from lead exposure, and the person credited for his role in the development of leaded gasoline, Thomas Midgley Jr., reportedly suffered from repeated lead exposure. 

Just like gangsta rap lyrics and pop culture references about lead (those refer to something else), lead is bad for your health. It is especially bad for children, as reasearch has shown. Lead exposure also brings issues with fertility. 

Other potential side effects of lead exposure include heart disease, kidney disease, respiratory issues, blood pressure problems, and many others.  

Ditching leaded gasoline was a complicated process, as 177 countries in the world still used it in 2001, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, Algeria was the last country to use it for automobiles, and they stopped adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to their fuel earlier this year. They made a lot of it, as the last supply was exhausted on August 30th, 2021. That was the last day in the world when someone bought leaded gasoline to use in a vehicle that will travel on public roads. 

Japan outlawed leaded gas for vehicles back in 1980, the USA did it in 1995, while Europe started phasing it out starting in the 1990s. China and India waited until 2000 to phase it out, while African states like Algeria waited even longer. 

Their next big hurdle is reducing Sulfur levels in diesel fuel, as those are significantly higher than what is allowed in Europe or North America. The worst part? The technology to do it is there, as it has been for over two decades, if not more. 

So, where is leaded gas still sold and what use does humanity have for it? It appears that piston-engined aircraft still use leaded gas (it is called avgas in that industry), comes with a 100-octane rating, and has LL, VLL, or UL designations. The first refers to Low Lead, the second means Very Low Lead, and the latter is Unleaded. 

The worst offender is 100LL, which means 100-octane “low lead” aircraft gasoline, but its lead content is not exactly low. The issue here is that there is no researched level as to what amount of lead in fuel is dangerous and by what margin, exposure to lead is dangerous, and that is why it was banned for cars.

Many feel that lead should be banned in any fuel sold and used in the world, but it is up to governments and oil companies to ensure that the world will reach that objective. 

Piston-engined aircraft that still fly today and use leaded gasoline reportedly need it for the prevention of detonation, also known as engine knock, which can produce a sudden engine failure. The additive is also required for a high-octane rating that is required to deal with their high compression design.

Many aircraft need 100 octane fuels for the reasons described above. If avgas in leaded form would disappear, it is claimed that airplanes would require switching to engines that operate on kerosene, also known as (but not restricted only to) Jet A-1. 

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are over 167,000 aircraft in the U.S. that rely on avgas to operate. There are no restrictions regarding these aircraft, even though avgas emissions are the largest contributor to the levels of emissions produced in the United States of America. While the levels are relatively low, they are still there, and avgas is the biggest reason. 

According to the FAA, some programs are supporting the research of alternatives to avgas, but a reliable lead-free alternative for avgas in LL and VLL forms has not yet been deployed. 

In the world of cars, the use of lead was justified for the same reason, but lead replacement additives were developed to help protect engines with soft valve seats. The same additives work for classic cars and motorcycles that drive with ethanol E5 or E10 fuel. Other additives have been developed to prevent detonation through a higher-octane rating. 

It is worth noting that aircraft need fuel with a 100-octane MON (Motor Octane Number) rating, while pump gas shows the RON (Research Octane Number) rating.

So, there are fuels that have 100 RON ratings or even higher, while MON ratings are not displayed. There is no link between the two, as they are two separate standards for measuring a fuel's resistance to knock. 

But still, if additives exist, we cannot help but wonder why nobody considered using them to boost octane levels of unleaded avgas? 

Unfortunately, there are other uses for leaded gasoline, as some boats and other specialty vehicles still use it. Leaded gas is still used in some blends of racing fuel (slowly being phased out), but the latter, just like avgas or marine fuel, cannot be used in vehicles driven on public roads, and few race cars use them anyway. Authorities have mandated certain coloring agents to these blends of fuel, so if someone would use leaded gas in a normal car, it would be easy to discover. 

Regardless, there is no benefit to using leaded gasoline in a modern car. It does not matter if leaded fuel is used mistakenly or intentionally, but it will lead (no pun intended, but we are only human) to severe engine damage.

The catalytic converter will be irreparably damaged, while there is a risk of damage to the valves, pistons, and other important (and expensive) engine components. In the case of race fuel, only a few types of vehicles are supposed to use leaded gasoline for performance reasons, but their environmental impact is low, as they never get used on the street.


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