Low-Sulfur Marathon

Tug with Oil Sheen

Published May 14, 2015 8:50 AM by Wendy Laursen

(Article originally published in Mar/Apr 2015 edition.)

It’s one hurdle after another when it comes to SOx limits.

The New Year brought not only the requirement for 0.1 percent sulfur fuels in Emission Control Areas but also the following risk alert from P&I Club Steamship Mutual: It is important not to mix these fuels with heavy fuel oil (HFO) as low-sulfur fuels are already very close to the limit. Even a small amount of HFO may render them non-compliant.

Additionally, new lighter fuels can have a solvent-like effect on tanks, lines, pumps and filters and may dislodge any accumulated residues. Not only could this affect compliance, it could also lead to leakages at pumps and seals, even some time after change-over. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has also issued an alert after several reported incidents involving substantial machinery space fuel leaks while vessels were switching fuel.

It seems the more we learn about low-sulfur fuels the more problematic they become.

MGO Is a Popular Choice

The use of marine gas oil (MGO) has been a popular compliance option with ship managers, according to an analysis by MEC Intelligence. MEC looked at 70 companies representing 10 from each of seven categories: short-sea container, deep-sea container, passenger, ro-ro, general cargo, bulk carriers and tankers. Collectively, the companies own about 5,000 vessels.

MGO is the choice for the majority of container ships, bulkers and tankers. Its attractiveness lies in companies’ familiarity with it, the minimal investment needed in vessel infrastructure, the existence of a well-established bunker supply chain and favorable oil prices.

As an alternative, Lukoil and Cepsa have released low-sulfur fuel blends that combine the best qualities of MGO and HFO. Exxon Mobil’s low-sulfur fuel oil blend HDME50 is being used by vessel owners in the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp (ARA) region.

According to Iain White, Global Marketing Manager for Marine Lubricants at ExxonMobil, HDME 50 enables a safer management of fuel switchover compared to MGO and the safe operation of auxiliary boilers while transiting an ECA. “The fuel offers a number of benefits associated with both MGO and HFO,” says White. “For example, it has a low-sulfur content similar to MGO but a higher flashpoint and the lower volatility properties typically found in HFO.”

Lubricants for Low-Sulfur Fuels

Along with the fuel change comes the need to address cylinder lubricants. Lubricant choice is important because high-specification, low-speed eco engines can be particularly susceptible to corrosion issues as a result of the buildup of sulfuric acid. The newest engine designs run at a higher pressure in the combustion chamber and have a longer operating time at low load, which leads to increased acid condensation in cylinders. This in turn creates cold corrosion and excessive wear on vessel cylinder liners.

According to research undertaken by Total Lubmarine, it is when a vessel leaves an ECA and switches from low to high-sulfur fuel that the potential for the worst engine damage arises. Total Lubmarine introduced Talusia Universal 100 in 2008 as a universal lubricant for use with 0.5 - 3.5 percent sulfur fuels and followed it last year with Talusia LS 25 for 0.1 percent sulfur fuel. The company is now working on another universal lubricant that will include this lower sulfur range.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has released Mobilgard 525, and Chevron’s Taro Special HTLF was released late last year. Lukoil has developed Navigo MCL Ultra, which is currently being trialed on a tanker and a bulker.

VGP Challenges

The December 2013 U.S. Vessel General Permit (VGP) has impacted the marine lubricant market as it introduced the need for environmentally acceptable lubricants (EALs) in a vessel entering U.S. waters. The USCG and EPA are educating the industry on what is required via publically available presentations and webinars. The two agencies realize it is important to provide a common message to the industry and to act in unison. To that end, they have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to insure coordinated action, says John Sherman, Technical Service and Development Manager for Marine at American Chemical Technologies.

The EPA states that the appearance of a sheen or film on a body of water defines a discharge of oil that may be harmful to the environment. Mineral oil or oil-soluble base stock lubricant spills can expand rapidly over a wide expanse of water, says Sherman. American Chemical Technologies’ range of Neptune AW lubricants is non-sheening and water-soluble. “Polyether polyol-based lubricants are the only water-soluble EALs and so do not cause a sheen,” he explains. “These lubricants do not require remediation and cannot potentially harm or kill birds and mammals by covering their feathers or fur with oil.”

EALs aim to provide at least the same quality and performance as mineral oils. Jared Mikacich, Sales and Marketing Manager for Greenmarine lubricants at Panolin America, says ship managers are being bombarded with options and some manufacturers are not being clear about their base oil technology. Greenmarine’s peripherals lubricants are based on fully saturated esters.

“There are two different esters,” says Mikacich. “One ester is chemically unsaturated and the other consists of 100 percent saturated esters. The technology differences are drastic. In clear terms, the saturated ester is a superior product. Unsaturated esters fall somewhere between vegetable oil and saturated esters as far as performance is concerned. When using unsaturated esters you might be subject to rapid aging, poor water separation and more average performance.”

The benefits of saturated esters are clear, he explains: “Because the saturated esters are produced specifically for certain applications, you can expect the following performance characteristics: long-term value (long life), low pour point, excellent reaction in cold start-up, iodine number less than 15, excellent thermal and oxidation stability, a clean system – no aging deposits, readily separates from water (critical for marine use and makes the oil salvageable), no sheen – decomposes quickly on water surface, high pressure operation with no issues, excellent rust prevention and seal and hose compatibility.”

Not understanding lubricant performance can lead to costly repair bills, says Marco van Boven, Marketing Manager at Parker Hannifin Filtration Group. For example, electrostatic damage is an emerging issue. EALs have a low zinc content, affecting the oil’s sensitivity to electrostatic charging, van Boven explains. All hydraulic fluids are sensitive to electrostatic charging when being pumped through a system or flowing through filter media. However, traditional oil not compliant with the VPG is able to distribute this charge and prevent the build-up of charged particles in small areas.

By contrast, EALs are less conductive and can result in a sudden discharge. This creates sparks that cause damage to both the oil and the system, including burning holes in the filter media. Further damage then occurs when the thermal and oxidative degradation of the oil leads to the formation of varnish, creating blockages in the system. The varnish generally lowers system efficiency, causing valves to stick and generating a slower response for system components with moving parts.

One important measure is to limit the static created by filters. Parker Static Control Media filters achieve this and can be inserted directly in place of existing filter media. Parker also provides solutions to remove water from the oil, which affects the fluid’s conductivity and shortens the lifespan of both the oil and system components.

In addition to the VGP’s technical challenges, ship managers are preparing for compliance checks. According to attorney Michael Merlie, a maritime law partner at U.S. firm Gawthrop Greenwood, there hasn’t yet been any enforcement action related to the use of non-VGP compliant lubricants: “Implementation of the required changes is proceeding slowly as expected because most of the affected equipment is below the waterline, and the vessel must be removed from the water to make the required changes. The VGP recognizes that under certain circumstances it may be technically unfeasible to switch to EALs and that the change can wait until the next drydocking.”

The USCG and EPA have been active on ECA requirements and last year conducted joint boardings of vessels to test fuel for sulfur levels. “Those boardings are expected to continue,” says Merlie. “The USCG has also been reviewing bunker delivery records in an effort to identify violations and will continue to do so. In January the EPA published a policy it will use to assess penalties.”

Preparing for 2020

Just as the shipping industry adjusts to the new 2015 ECA requirements, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) announced that the global 0.5 percent sulfur-in-fuel cap required by IMO is more likely to be implemented in 2020 rather than 2025. The European Commission has already mandated that the 0.5 percent sulfur limit will be applicable in its waters beginning in 2020.

ICS Chairman Masamichi Morooka says shipping companies should not assume that a deferral to 2025 will happen simply because they are unprepared. “For better or worse, the global cap is very likely to be implemented in 2020, almost regardless of the effect that any lack of availability of compliant fuel may have on the cost of moving world trade by sea.” The drop to 0.5 percent is likely to cost the shipping industry as much as $50 billion a year and will again affect lubricant choice.

So it is time to prepare, again. – MarEx

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.