New fuels: engine failures and blackouts

Much has been made of the maritime industry’s drive to lower emissions through the use of new, cleaner fuels. However, a new report reveals there are unintended consequences associated with this.

ship maintenance

Lowering emissions is becoming a rigorous requirement in shipping. Emission Control Areas (ECAs) enforce strict conditions, ensuring the industry plays its part in tackling climate change. This has been broadly welcomed, but machinery claims in relation to fuel are now on the rise.

Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty's (AGCS) annual 'Safety and Shipping Review' report outlines how, in extreme cases, power failures have been linked to the use of ultra-low sulphur fuel.

Captain Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant at AGCS, said in March: "Pilots have reported power losses during critical manoeuvres. These lighter fuels are not used in the deep-sea trades, so we are seeing electrical blackouts when the ships are at their most vulnerable in tight areas and when changing speed. At worst, this could lead to groundings."

Daniel Danielsen, from the Bunkering Sourcing team at Maersk Line, says the risk can be "very severe", and believes "strict" operational procedures and guidelines need to be put in place. "Practices will have to evolve as new regulations come into force," he adds.

Expanding regulations: a threat to equipment?

AGCS's findings highlight how these scenarios could increase as regulations are tightened even further. As of 1 January 2015, the sulphur level permitted in marine fuels for ships sailing in ECAs was reduced from 3.5% to 0.1%. Meanwhile, the global cap will be reduced from 3.5% to 0.5% in 2020, following a review.

For those in the ECAs, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) clarifies that this applies to "fuel oil used on board", in other words the fuel used in the main and auxiliary engines and boilers. The regulation falls under the MARPOL Annex VI.

"The quality of fuel supplied to a vessel is increasingly difficult to predict."

As AGCS points out, it is ultra-low sulphur fuel that has been at the forefront of problems. The ECAs for sulphur oxides (SOx) are: the Baltic Sea area; the North Sea area; North America (covering designated coastal areas off the US and Canada), as well as the US Caribbean Sea area - Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

One concern raised with stricter SOx caps is what this means for fuel quality. "As environmental regulation becomes more widespread, the quality of fuel supplied to a vessel is increasingly difficult to predict," says Larry Rumbol, condition monitoring market development manager marine, at Parker Kittiwake, a company that specialises in marine equipment monitoring.

"Vessels are increasingly taking more distillates from fuel oil, which therefore requires more refining, and as a result more cat fines are carried over." Cat, or catalyst, fines are by-products of the refining process and can cause damage to equipment if not removed properly.

Sven Gerhard, global product leader Hull & Marine Liabilities at AGCS, described in the review how these catalyst fines can severely corrode cylinders, consequently deteriorating "within two to three years".

This is compounded by the fact that catalyst fines can often be too small for many filtration systems to spot, enabling them to pass through, "embedding themselves in the liner walls, where damage occurs", adds Rumbol.

Understanding and monitoring: data is king

Rumbol also believes there is a paradox within the ECA regulations. "The shipowner is responsible for compliance despite having little control over the fuel they receive from suppliers," he says.

"Conflicts and confusion immediately begin to emerge. Fuel quality can vary quite considerably between various ports, and even fuel that conforms to specified industry quality standards can often require additional testing and processing, both to determine its quality and to identify and reduce the levels of damaging elements such as water or solid particles."

With fluctuations on fuel quality combining with regulatory obligations, it becomes a question of monitoring the condition of equipment. In today's world, this doesn't just mean manual checks. It has evolved from the days of engineers physically examining equipment and relying on their senses and intuition to one where streams of data from sensors play a valuable role.

Tools such as online sensor technologies or onboard testing are becoming increasingly prevalent, and that's a good thing, according to Rumbol, whose advice is simple: make the most of the technology and what it allows you to do.

"We are seeing electrical blackouts when ships are at their most vulnerable."

"They have never been more valuable in helping operators manage or even mitigate potentially costly issues. Condition monitoring tools should be a consideration from the outset of planned vessel operations and even at the earliest stages of design," he explains.

"Easy access to information that gives an accurate picture of the state of the system in real time, and not just when an engineer can get to a machine for routine testing and sampling, ensures operators are forewarned when issues arise. This allows preventative action before catastrophic damage occurs...And the evidence they require to demonstrate to their insurer that they have taken every step to mitigate the issue, thereby safeguarding their financial claim."

The cost of "catastrophic" damage to, for example, a cylinder liner can be up to $65,000 "for parts alone", but this can increase when the required manpower, downtime and repairs are taken into account.

But isn't installing the sensors and technology rather expensive as well? Well, when measured against the option of not doing so, and therefore running the risk of damage to equipment, not so, says Rumbol. "It quickly becomes clear that the savings it delivers far outweigh the capital investment required to get the information in the first place."

Danielsen also believes that technology is particularly useful when evaluating the "effect of new fuels on machinery wear and tear".

A want for cleaner fuels, but concerns remain

Limiting the damage is perhaps now more important than ever. Standards will continue to change; the industry is on a never-going-back trajectory for cleaner fuels.

As these environmental considerations command much of the focus, it becomes beholden on those drafting regulations, and the industry itself, to understand the wider operational effects, as the AGCS review demonstrates.

The first test is likely to arrive sooner rather than later. Proposed revisions to the ISO 8217 specifications for marine fuels have been given a tepid response, and Rumbol is concerned: "Should they [the proposals] come into effect, they could have a significant impact on fuel quality and vessel performance. In particular, there are notable concerns around the potential for permitting a higher tolerance level for the concentration of harmful and abrasive particles."

A technical committee is now reviewing feedback from industry on this. For shipowners, it is all about anticipating the unintended consequences, and having the measures in place at all levels to track and understand them.

"With the right measures taken, and the right practices in place, the new alternative fuels can be handled onboard," says Danielsen. "But, all comes at a cost, which must always be evaluated against the savings from using alternative fuels."