Compatibility issues with bunker fuels can be expected to continue after the majority of the shipping industry shifts to burning lower-sulfur marine fuels in 2020, according to fuel testing company Bureau Veritas.
When the International Maritime Organization’s global marine fuels sulfur cap drops to 0.5% at the start of 2020, most shipowners are expected to switch from burning high sulfur fuel oil to new cleaner bunker blends known as very low sulfur fuel oils (VLSFO) which have a sulfur content limit of 0.5%.
But many in the shipping and bunker industries have raised concerns that some of these new blends will prove incompatible if brought in contact with one another, risking blocked filters and engine failures.
“Compatibility is a known issue, it exists today and will exist after 2020,” Charlotte Rojgaard, Bureau Veritas’ global technical manager for marine fuel services, said in an interview Thursday. “VLSFOs will need to be handled with similar care to [fuels] today.”
Industry players expect the new blends of fuel will fall into two broad groups, paraffinic and aromatic. The former would have a higher pour point, meaning there will be a need to heat fuels when sailing into cold climates.
“Mixing a paraffinic and an aromatic product is not a very good idea as you run the risk of an incompatible product. But that is similar today, it can also be problematic if you mix two high sulfur fuel oils,” Rojgaard said.
In any case, the industry already handles blended fuel. “RMG 380 CST fuel oil, [the prevalent bunker fuel at present], is a blended fuel,” Rojgaard said.
“We know today that there are regions which are more prone to issues and this is likely to remain the case after 2020 but it is difficult to say if there will be more or less of this,” Rojgaard said. “I think time will tell.”
The bunker market was hit by a spate of bunker fuel-related engine failures earlier in 2018. The problem appeared to have started in Houston on the US Gulf Coast but its effects were felt at many other ports in other countries as well.
At least one producer believes it can provide a uniform product, thereby minimizing an association of risk with product from any one area. ExxonMobil said in October all of its VLSFO blends will be compatible with each other.
Without specifying any one company, Rojgaard said this is probably possible. “Never say never,” she added.
Disregarding the fuel incidents earlier this year, if you have to mention a single fuel-related cause of engine problems today, it is probably cat fines. Although not all VLSFOs are expected to contain cat fines, they should not be disregarded going into 2020, Rojgaard said.
Cat fines are a by-product of the refining process, a by-product of catalysts used in the FCC unit of a refinery. FCC residual products known as slurry and light cycle oil are used to blend down the viscosity of residual fuel oil to the levels required by ships.
Many of new VLSFO blends will probably have lower viscosity and density compared to the fuels supplied today so they should be easier to manage in terms of cat fines’ removal and separator efficiency, Rojgaard said. Some companies have specified the viscosity of their VLSFO blends. Spanish producer Cepsa has said it will sell a single 200 CST product, while BP has showcased two possible new 0.5% blends — one an aromatic 163 CST blend and the other a paraffinic 218 CST blend.
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