Many shipowners view switching to low-sulphur fuels as the easiest way to comply with the International Maritime Organization’s 2020 sulphur cap, at least compared with the cost and complexity of installing scrubbers.
But at the Posidonia exhibition, shipowners are being urged to avoid falling into the trap of thinking low-sulphur fuels are a simple solution, because low-sulphur fuel has its own issues and challenges as well.
As Nikolaos Liapis, supply and operations director at ElinOil outlined, refineries have three ways to respond to the sulphur cap.
They can refine sweeter, low-sulphur crude grades, blend existing heavy fuel oil (HFO) with distillates such as marine gasoil (MGO), or they can process away the sulphur.
But each one of these solutions carries significant drawbacks.
Sweeter crude grades generally are priced at a significant premium to sour crudes, while processing away the sulphur involves years of planning and building the technology. Just to highlight the difficulty of the task, no refinery in the Mediterranean region has committed to doing it yet.
Blending means that the shipping industry is competing with each other on price. It also opens up the shipping sector to fuel stability issues, which can lead to sludge building up in engines and high levels of cat fines, whereby aluminium and silicon particles can damage engines.
Running engines of fuels high on MGO or purely MGO can create vibrations and issues with transmission, leading to cracks. Sulphur is also an excellent lubricant. Removing it means that other lubricants must be added instead, at a high cost.
“Engines are built around fuels, not fuels around engines,” Liapis said. And currently, that fuel is HFO.
The International Bunker Industry Association has warned that ports will not be able to easily replace the current supply of HFO with low-sulphur fuels. Not only will this force some ports to import compliant fuels from long distances, it could also also lead to higher non-competitive prices.
Ports that rely on a single local refinery will be hit particularly hard.
There are a few simple steps that owners can take to minimise the risks from blended fuels, Liapis said.
Vessels should avoid mixing bunker fuels from different sources and fuels need to be stored separately until their contents can be verified. They should also avoid mixing straight-run fuel oils with cracked ones, and fuels of different viscosities and densities.
Because of the complexity of these issues, problems are difficult to avoid. Even mixing two stable fuels can make them unstable. It seems that to comply with the sulphur cap, even the simplest solutions can be complicated.