Fuel's "Slippery Slope"


Published May 13, 2016 6:31 PM by Tim Sheahan

(Article originally published in Mar/Apr 2016 edition.)

Contaminants in fuel are becoming a problem.

By Tim Sheahan

Vincent Favier is the CEO of Ecoslops, the first company to develop technology to produce recycled marine fuels from marine oil residues, known as “slops.” Last year it announced that it had sold its first volume of marine fuel and imported a new shipment of slops to its refinery at the Port of Sinès in Portugal.

Ecoslops confirmed that it sold 1,000 tons of marine diesel oil (MDO), compliant with ISO 8217 standards, at market price to a European bunker operator. And following the initial import of a shipment of 3,200 tons of slops from Northern Europe, it has also imported a second shipment of 3,000 tons.

The Problem with Slops

Favier says that in the fight for increased sustainability within the shipping industry the disposal of slops is heavily regulated under the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) MARPOL 73/78 as well as European Union law (EC Directive 59/2000).

But he adds that there are two real challenges: “First, the enforcement of regulation – a growing concern in shipping not limited to slops regulation – is hard to guarantee as evidenced by the high-profile Trafigura incident in 2006, when 500 tons of fuel, caustic soda and hydrogen sulfide were illegally ‘dumped’ at the Ivorian Port of Abidjan. Second, while vessels are required to dispose of slops in ports prior to exit, the current market dynamic is making it very difficult to do.”

Why is that? Favier explains: “Slops used to be purchased by sectors such as the cement industry and used as industrial fuel. However, the low cost of crude is encouraging these previous buyers to purchase purer virgin fuel products. Traditional slops collectors are therefore struggling to find a market that is commercially viable.”

As a result, slops are building up in ports because many do not have adequate port reception facilities, and there are limited opportunities for waste collectors to sustainably dispose of them. Tanks are becoming physically full, and vessels can’t afford to – nor want to – keep the waste product. Port authorities can’t authorize vessels to leave port without discharging the slops, yet they have nowhere to dispose of them. In short, the situation is threatening to interrupt shipping operations, causing downtime which no one can afford as well as environmental and sustainability issues.

Favier says that “One solution to the problem is using specialist micro-refining technology, which enables slops to be sustainably treated and regenerated into marine fuel (distillates and IFO), which can then be sold back into the shipping market, along with naphtha and light bitumen. Ecoslops has pioneered the development of this technology, and the company’s first refinery within the Port of Sinès began commercial operation in 2015.”

He adds that since then the company has imported several thousand tons of slops, of which 98 percent has been regenerated and sold for commercial use within the marine market as MDO and IFO and in the building and construction sectors as XFO. With the viability of the technology proven, the company is actively working to develop further facilities in the ports of Constanta on the Black Sea and Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, as well as other sites in the South of France and the ARA (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp) region.

Cat Fines

The proposed 2016 draft update to ISO 8217, the standard for marine fuels, is also causing concern. Larry Rumbol, Market Development Manager at Parker Kittiwake, explains: “As recently stated by leading expert Dr. Ram Vis, the new draft would allow the fuel supplier to deliver a bunker that couldn’t be considered out-of-specification unless it exceeded the specified cat fines limit value by more than the 95 percent confidence level.” Cat fines are tiny abrasive particles that can seriously damage a ship’s propulsion system.

Rumbol adds that “This could prove perilous for vital equipment such as cylinder liners as it would permit the concentration level to rise from the current maximum of 60 ppm to 72 ppm despite explicit recommendations from OEMs such as MAN and Wärtsilä that only fuel with a concentration of no more than 15 ppm should be used. Moreover, it would give the bunker supplier expanded protection from claims regarding the quality of the fuel. In such a situation, condition-monitoring tools could be the only thing preventing owners and operators from finding themselves severely out of pocket and without any legal recourse.”

Parker Kittiwake’s analysis of the proposed changes concludes that the tolerance levels of contaminants in fuel would be raised to a compromising level and that mechanical failure up to and including total loss of propulsion would be an increased possibility. As a result, operators are increasingly taking a proactive approach to condition-monitoring to ensure they’re in control of the risks that can arise from their compliance efforts.

“Concerns over fuel quality regularly hit the headlines,” says Rumbol, “and over the past few years the quality of distillates used to comply with Emissions Control Area (ECA) regulations has become increasingly variable. The knock-on effect of poor quality fuel is damage to vital machinery and equipment, which is why it’s more critical than ever to condition-monitor to detect any issues at the earliest possible stage.”

To produce distillate fuels requires a robust refining process, and a consequence of this is that catalyst particles (or cat fines) can be carried over into the fuel. Rumbol explains that “These abrasive particles are too small for the majority of filtration systems and – unless a tool such as the Parker Kittiwake Cat Fines Test Kit is used to detect them during loading – they can pass through to the engine and embed themselves in the cylinder liner walls, causing catastrophic damage.”

Replacement of a single liner can cost more than $65,000 for parts alone. And as a vessel has multiple liners, insurance statistics cite an average cost of $1 million+ once the materials, labor and associated costs of downtime and repair are considered. “Shipowners tell us that freight rates are some of the most challenging in memory,” Rumbol adds. “For them, de-risking their infrastructure and maximizing vessel uptime is absolutely critical. It’s a priority that Norbulk, the leading ship management firm, recently emphasized with its purchase of 70 Parker Kittiwake Cat Fines Test Kits for its fleet.”

The LNG Solution

Early this year the world’s largest LNG exporter, Qatargas, signed a technical collaboration agreement with the Maersk Group designed to explore opportunities related to the use of LNG marine propulsion. Both parties had been exploring opportunities for collaboration for the last two years. LNG has the potential to reduce emissions of CO2 by up to 25 percent, of NOx by up to 40 percent, and to completely eliminate SOx emissions. In addition to the technical collaboration agreement, a memorandum of understanding was signed by Qatargas, Maersk Line and Shell International Trading Middle East Limited to evaluate LNG as a marine fuel. 

“This cooperation between Qatargas and the Maersk Group represents an important step in developing technology to use LNG as a viable fuel for maritime transportation,” says Nils S. Andersen, CEO of Maersk Group. “The possible use of LNG propulsion technology for ships presents an opportunity to reduce both SOx emissions and the transport sector’s CO2 footprint.”

Maersk currently operates more than one in six of the world’s container vessels. Subject to the required infrastructure being available and the development of cost-efficient LNG-propelled vessels, early predictions suggest a larger scale use of this propulsion technology by shipowners in the future. Among many innovations, Maersk has developed an onboard lubrication system to recycle used lubricants, resulting in savings while maintaining safe, reliable and optimized engine conditions.

Lube Oils

On the lubricants front, Justin Van Tries, Sales Engineer at Total Lubmarine, points out that many technical issues encountered by clients are caused by inadequate sampling procedures, leading to incorrect analysis of engine conditions and misapplied lubricants. He says that the company’s team of experts can provide onboard and shore-side training to crews to improve their lubricant knowledge.

“Many operators are using our Diagomar Plus testing kits across all assets,” Van Tries explains. “This service enables marine lubricant samples to be drawn and sent away to one of our four laboratories worldwide. Over time, patterns can be identified and analyzed and lubricant recommendations tailored to the individual vessel. If an asset is relocated, for example from the Gulf of Mexico to Brazil, the owning or managing company will deal with the same customer support team in placing orders and providing technical expertise – same office, same people – regardless of the asset location around the world.”

And in an industry first, AIDA Cruises has taken delivery of the first of two new-generation ships from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Nagasaki. The AIDAprima is the world's first cruise ship equipped with the Mitsubishi Air Lubrication System (MALS), which is the company’s proprietary technology for enhanced fuel efficiency. MALS forms small air bubbles that cover the bottom of the vessel and reduce friction between the hull and seawater when sailing. This reduces carbon dioxide and fuel consumption by approximately seven percent. – MarEx

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