Fuel expert hesitant to use hybrid fuels in immediate post-2020 environment

Fuel expert hesitant to use hybrid fuels in immediate post-2020 environment

Hybrid fuels will be the long-term solution to the 2020 global sulphur cap, but conventional marine gas oil (MGO) with a 0.5 per cent sulphur content is the sensible approach in the immediate post-2020 environment due to increasing issues with the quality of distillate fuels, maintains Ian Crutchley, account manager, Veritas Petroleum Services.

“Personally, I’d be using MGO in 2020 and not the new fuels on the market and let somebody else get that experience,” Mr Crutchley told VPO Global during a North P&I Club led press briefing.

The fuel expert believes that blended fuels will ultimately be the solution to a global 0.5 percent sulphur-in-fuel-oil cap, however, a significant rise in the number of ships experiencing catastrophic component damage due to contaminants found in the marine fuel chain make him wary of adopting a 0.5 per cent fuel blend in the immediate 2020 environment.

The issuing of bunker alerts, which indicate the appearance of an off-spec fuel at a port, have been increasing since 2016. “As a testing agency we see about 15 per cent of all residual fuel and 9 per cent of all distillates fuels were critically or non-critically off spec for at least one parameter (in 2018)” confirms Mr Crutchley.

Of particular importance is the shift in bunker alerts issued from residual fuels to distillate ones.

In 2017, VPS issued 58 bunker alerts, covering 58 separate issues on fuel quality across various ports.  62 per cent of these relating to residual fuel, a 30 per cent increase on bunker alerts for this fuel type issued in 2016, and 38 per cent related to distillate fuel, a 70 per cent increase since 2016. Parameters causing bunker alerts to be issued include cat fines, contaminants, FP, cold flow properties.

“There has been the perception in the past that distillate fuels are problem-free. Actually, there is a lot that can be wrong and we see a lot of issues with flashpoint where they tend to blend with more volatile components which tends to give you a lower flashpoint.”

“In 2018, we have already issued 33 bunker alerts, 55 per cent for residual and 45 per cent for distillate, so if you look at the percentages, we’re nearly at 50/50 now between the different grades. What this really says is that the distillate fuel seems to be getting worse.”

Crutchley explains that as demand increases, fuel quality issues become more common. Fuel oil, which is the largest volume of fuel used on board, generates even more problems than gas oil. Most common issues are high cat fines, aluminium silicone that wear the engine, sediment and sodium density,

One of the fundamental problems today is that these fuels meet the ISO8217 specification, but vessels are experiencing a wealth of issues following their use as a result of fuel contamination. Materials that should not be present in fuels, such as chlorinated hydrocarbons, alcohol, terpenes, cyclopentadiene, ketones, are just some of the contaminants that have found their way into the fuel supply chain.

Crutchley discloses that the level of unfamiliar materials found in fuels is on the rise, marked by recent reports of engine component damage on ships bunkering at Houston port and throughout the US Gulf. Between January and May this year, just over 100 vessels suffered fuel pump failures with fuel supplied in Houston, crippling the ships’ main and auxiliary engines. The problem was also found in Corpus Christi and Panama with signs of sludging, fuel filter blockages, and sticking fuel pumps, indicating that fuel contamination is not limited to one area of even one supplier’s fuel supply. It is an upstream problem, beginning at the refinery.

Looking forward

According to consultancy, CE Delft, the demand for 0.5 per cent fuel has shifted dramatically between 2012 and predictions for 2020. In 2012, demand for 0.5 per cent fuel was 0 million metric tonnes whereas for 2020 it is predicted at 233 million metric tonnes. In comparison, HFO demand was 228m MT in 2012, but the predicted demand for 2020 is just 36m MT, based on estimations for scrubber uptake.

Crutchley believes that market forces dictate more sophisticated blending practices are required in order to meet this demand and lower the risk of contaminated fuel.  In 2020 there will be a wider stock of fuels on the market and different blends that are much more complicated to make. The risk of this is that there could be even more exotic things found in the fuel which shouldn’t be there. Fuel handling and segregation is critical with these fuels.

Testing will also have to be even more thorough and advanced to find these materials within the fuels. “We will have to use more and more sophisticated techniques in order to give an accurate picture of how that fuel is going to perform.”

There will also be financial implications as a result of obtaining and operating with lower sulphur fuel. According to International Transport Forum at the OECD, the Emission Control Areas (ECAs) that entered into force in 2015 cost the container shipping industry USD 500 million. The OECD predicts the 2020 requirements could add annual total costs up to USD 30 billion for the container shipping industry. “This is a heavy increase in operational costs for anyone to bear, but then what is the cost to the planet if environmental issues aren’t attacked?” asks Crutchley.

Image courtesy of VPS.