VLSFO quality stabilising, agree industry experts

A selection of different 0.5% max sulphur fuels. Credit: Ship & Bunker

Despite initial teething issues around the use of very low sulphur fuel oils (VLSFO) fuel quality and safety is stabilising, industry experts have said.

Charlotte Røjgaard, global head of Verifuel speaking at a webinar hosted by maritime consultancy Blue noted that in the first few months of 2020 a wider range of viscosities of fuels were making their way onto the market, as well as paraffinic fuels which can cause crystallisation and lead to blockages of fuel filters in cold temperatures.

Jan Christensen, senior director purchasing and supply, Hapag Lloyd, also noted the early issues with different viscosity levels around the world, with crews encountering very low viscosities in Asia and elevated sediment in the systems in the US. He stressed, however, that these had limited impacts on operational issues during the first months of the year.

The new VLSFOs have a 0.5% Sulphur content to be compliant. When it comes to testing VLSFOs, as long as they meet the sulphur content criteria they will be labelled as a complaint fuel. In comparison, heavy fuel oils (HFO) are tested and ascribed to a series of quality grades under ISO8217, which sets the standards for ship bunker fuels.

As such, Røjgaard explained that when the low sulphur fuel samples are received at Verifuel labs they are all categorised as VLSFOs despite the differences in viscosity, which could explain the initial fuel-stability issues certain ships faced at the beginning of the year when transitioning to using VLSFO.

Steve Bee, group commercial and business development director, VPS, a fuel testing company, also noted this issue, stating that VLSFOs “vary enormously” in terms of density, viscosity and sediment potential. He also noted that many VLSFOs are blended products, “utilising many different blend criteria and components”.

Røjgaard stressed that other factors also play a part in fuel stability, such as compatibility issues with engines and fuel mixing that can occur if tanks haven’t been cleaned rigorously enough before taking on board the new fuel. Such issues can cause blockages in the engine, leading to failures, and even blackouts.

There have also been incidences of crews suffering from headaches or nausea caused by strange smells emanating off the new fuels. “When those fuels were analysed we found they did contain saline which does have a distinct smell; though it did not cause operational problems crew safety is as important,” said Røjgaard.

Yet despite the numerous issues associated with VLSFOS, Christensen observed that fuel quality across the Hapag-Lloyd fleet is getting better, and that the products are getting easier to handle onboard. “Despite some initial differences in density and viscosity levels, these haven’t yet caused any real operational issues,” he said.

Currently, the fuel regulators and vessel owners are waiting for the April 2020 data to confirm, but Christensen expressed confidence that VLSFO fuel quality is stabilizing and the industry appears to be adapting to the new fuels.