|Testing the low-sulphur waters|
|Friday, 25 March 2011 16:10|
How regular monitoring can safeguard against the fuels of the future
As Emission Control Areas (ECAs) continue to widen, and with the North American ECA set to be introduced next year, the pressure is on for the shipping industry to meet the impending IMO fuel sulphur content limit of 0.1 percent in 2015.
The ongoing debate about the consequences of imposing this limit and its viability has highlighted the impact that low sulphur fuels can have on marine diesel engines. Combined with the resulting damage and costs that can ensue through a more fragmented bunker market (leading to some bunker stems containing multiple-sourced blending feedstocks), modern ship operators are facing a challenging period.
Bunker fuel is by far the biggest operating expense for a ship owner and incidences of “off spec” bunker fuel samples are on the rise. Just this month, a leading fuel testing agency reported a rise in the number of off-spec bunker samples from the Mediterranean and Black Sea region, with 21 percent of the samples off-specification in 2010, increasing to 25 percent in the first months of 2011.*
Over the past few years, driven by increased demand for low sulphur bunker fuel and high bunker prices, some fuel blenders have been accused of paying less attention to the origin and quality of the cutter stock, resulting in fuel quality becoming more suspect. Ironically, the blending is often carried out to meet certain regulatory requirements but can fall short of the mark, presenting unstable product with weighty consequences for ship operators. According to DNV, the lowering of the ECA sulphur limit to one percent on July 1, 2010 has had a tangible impact on the global average, and, concurrently, a substantial impact on cat fine levels in some of the biggest bunkering ports.
Fuels that are unstable due to incompatibility between the blend components, poor ignition and combustion, excessive sedimentation and chemical contamination are becoming more prevalent, even if they appear to have met the ISO 8217: 2005 specification, let alone the revised ISO 8217: 2010. There has also been an increase in bunkers with elevated levels of abrasive fines and a low flash point.
By comparison, distillate fuels are regarded as relatively problem-free, but there is a lack of independent market research that confirms whether consistent performance from these types of fuels is possible. The industry remains in the dark about the composition of future distillates that could create new challenges affecting engine operation and safety, as well as emissions – uncharted territory that needs to be explored further, and soon.
The margin for error when bunkering today’s fuels is significant and during fuel handling and treatment on board, a number of problems can occur. These problems differ in scope and severity from fuel to fuel and ship to ship and although they are a matter of course, handling them can still be difficult. The global economic downturn has led to a squeeze on the quality of ships’ personnel, notably chief engineers, and operational cost cutting has undermined robust condition monitoring practices to the extent that “bad fuel” can be said to have as much to do with poor handling as a sub-standard product.
Careful handling and pre-treatment of the fuel can solve or alleviate most issues but the engineer must have information to hand about each fuel on board (such as a compatibility or stability rating). Enforcing bunkering best practice to ensure that a representative sample of the fuel is obtained is crucial. This can then be stored for future reference and tested on board the vessel for a number of key parameters, including IMO MARPOL Annex VI, required within ECAs.
Some pitfalls will require fuel treatment chemicals, which can prove extremely cost effective. Regular testing allows for the timely application of lubricity additives and stability improvers, available from the larger marine suppliers. These all have a useful role to play, if applied with the backing of good technical advice.
Switching between different fuel types can also compromise fuel systems and power, and it is essential to check the suitability of each component in the fuel combustion system of each engine and boiler against the range of fuels that you will use. Implementing best practice and training the crew in the appropriate preparations must become second nature as more new ECAs are added. For safety reasons, any fuel switching should be completed before entering ports or ECAs.
Underpinning this good practice is on-board testing, which can provide very accurate results for water, density, viscosity, salt, compatibility and stability monitoring. Today’s microchip technology ensures results are available immediately and before the fuel has to be used, so it is possible to mitigate the eventual cost – a good position in instances of legal actions and liability.
To support onboard condition monitoring, laboratory testing is a great “insurance policy”, although this should not be solely relied upon, as it is a slow process that can take weeks – inadequate when you consider the time-critical wear and tear to engines that can occur. Kittiwake’s sampling services and onboard testing kits and those from the likes of FOBAS and DNV provide test results and thorough analysis. Should problems arise, they can provide detailed technical support that is often beyond the capabilities of a hard-pressed marine superintendent.
As bunker fuel quality varies and engine health risks rise, so the benefits of troubleshooting using online tools and technology can equate to millions of dollars in savings. However, relying purely on technology is not enough – a shift in mindset is needed. Crew must be drilled in regular maintenance processes to ensure that bunker sampling and fuel testing is at the forefront of minds and daily operational routine. Combining best practice with effective monitoring techniques is central to clamping down on the prevalence of “off spec” fuel, as well as elevating industry standards.
Martin Lucas, Kittiwake Developments
*“Off-spec samples increase in Mediterranean and Black Sea region”, Bunkerworld, March 4, 2011
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