IMO 2020 - Do we really know what are we getting ourselves into?
Jonas Ostlund, Head of Product Management - Energy Solutions
Putting aside ongoing concerns on price and availability, have we taken the time to consider the actual make-up of these new fuels which will be sloshing around our fuel tanks come New Year?
I think not. It’s not a massive surprise though as fuel blenders and suppliers remain tight lipped about their 2020 products and so far, we have only seen a few examples of the blended 0,5 % sulfur fuel oils predicted to capture 50% of the fuel market after 1st of January 2020.
But what about these blended VLSFO? Are they fit for purpose? What happens if I bunker a 130 cSt fuel in Rotterdam and at a later stage needs to bunker a 20 cSt oil in the same tank or god forbid you have to blend them. I have seen both examples with the new VLSFO and the difference in viscosity and density will cause challenges with compatibility and stability.
Fuels generally fall into two main categories, paraffinic or aromatic. Paraffinic fuels tend to have good ignition properties but will destabilise asphaltenes. Aromatic fuels on the other hand have a negative impact on ignition properties but tends to stabilise asphaltenes. This creates a problem when making the blended VLSFO, it is important to get the balance between the paraffinic and aromatic properties right otherwise the fuel will be unstable and form sludge during storage.
In the media we often hear the words stability and compatibility and it is easy to confuse the two. Both stability and compatibility have to do with the stability of the asphaltenes. Asphaltenes are large molecules that, simply put, stay peptized in the fuel based on the aromatic content. It is a gross simplification but in relation to the aromatic vs paraffinic content it explains why mixing a fuel with a paraffinic fuel tends to destabilize fuels unless the fuel is already paraffinic in nature.
Is there any reason for concern about fuel stability and compatibility or is it just a storm in a glass of water? I found this telling quote, unfortunately I am not sure who he or she is, but it sets the scene for a complicated future.
The most effective blender is one who meets the fuel specification limit, while using the lowest cost blend stock" - Quote from a Senior Blending expert
In my opinion there is reasons to be concerned. We see and hear about the major oil companies researching into the blending of VLSFO which I can fully understand but from their perspective they have to make it work. The 1st of January 2020 their major outlet of residual components from the refineries are virtually reduced to a fraction of what it used to be. In short term the blending of VLSFO becomes a vital outlet for the residue but what does the blending mean?
Residual fuel oil is one of the lowest value products to exit the refinery, blending this quality down to 0,5% sulfur goes right back to the anonymous blending expert above. The winner will be the one who can blend at the lowest cost, this does have implications on the quality of the VLSFO we will see on the market. Is this a concern?
The Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) believes it is. In their Resolution MEPC.320(74) that have added a section dedicated to “Possible safety implications relating to fuel oils meeting the 0.50% m/m sulphur limit” and on top of the list is not surprisingly Stability and Compatibility. Looking into my e-mail, questions from users and on Linked In it seems like everyone is worried about the stability and compatibility of the new VLSFO.
Ok you say, we got it, we are all concerned stability and compatibility but why should we be all worked up about it? It all goes back to the headline of the MEPC resolution 320(74). It has to do with the safety implications of using a fuel that potentially is or can become unstable. The main risk is that the asphaltenes separate out of the fuel and form sludge and that this sludge ends up in the filters effectively blocking them. The consequence of blocked fuel filters is often a blackout ship with loss of propulsion.
UK P&I Club has reported that 16% of all black outs where fuel related and that most of them comes from blocked fuel filters, the question in my head is where this number will be when we balance the books at the end of 2020. The primary focus should then be to mitigate the risk from unstable and incompatible VLSFO’s, but what is the best way to do this? How is the engine best protected and how can I reduce the risk of blackouts and loss of control?
One obvious way is to continue to use fuel testing services to get a good overview of all parameters of the fuel. It is always recommended to do fuel testing in according with ISO 8217, but the testing has a built in flaw. The fuel testing usually takes a few days with transportation testing and results back. In many cases the vessel has already left port but has quarantined the fuel until the results come back. If the result comes back indicating an issue with stability, there is no way to correct the problem unless the vessel is already carrying products on board. In the best-case filters needs to be cleaned a bit more often and the purifier will produce more sludge but in the worst case the vessel may experience blackouts and engine damage as a result of the fuel being unstable.
Without wanting to be an alarmist it is a possible scenario and as reported by the P&I Club in UK 16% of all blackouts are fuel related with the majority being blocked fuel filters. There is a very straight forward way to mitigate the risk and that is by using on board testing to get quick results on the stability and compatibility of the fuel. The testing is quick and easy to do and can be done directly during bunkering. To test compatibility the worst-case scenario should always be used which is mixing the fuels at a 50/50 ratio.
It sounds easy and it is easy to carry out to make sure a certain level of control is in place and to mitigate the main risks with the new VLSFO. Routine testing for problems like fuel stability and compatibility, will help you identify problems early enough and data will enable you to take corrective treatment actions on time to minimize risk and associated costs.
Or as we simply put it within Wilhelmsen Ships Service – Test & Treat your fuels!