A smarter approach to fuel challenges

Dahl: "We are unique in that we offer products right across the fuel line, but what is the benefit of that to customers?"
Fuel conditioning for methanol fuel is one developing area of Alfa Laval's alternative fuels business
Fuel conditioning for methanol fuel is one developing area of Alfa Laval's alternative fuels business

Ship owners will need to focus more on smart operation of their equipment as fuel challenges mount. According to Niclas Dahl. vice president of Alfa Laval’s marine separation and heat transfer business unit, the company is investing heavily to develop those solutions.

Alfa Laval is one of a handful of marine technology companies which can claim to have installations on a majority of merchant vessels. As head of marine separators, Niclas Dahl is in a unique position from which to comment on the fuel challenges of the shipping industry. Separation technology is applied not only to conventional heavy fuel and lubrication oil separators, but increasingly in NOx and SOx emissions abatement technology – in the treatment of water used in scrubbers, for example – and in the conditioning of gas fuels including methanol, LNG and LPG.

As such, Dahl offers a broad perspective on the increasingly stringent environmental regulations that ship owners face and the technological solutions they will require. In the interview below, Dahl outlines the company’s approach to those challenges as well as how it is helping ship owners in their search for increasingly efficient operations.

As one of the biggest marine technology suppliers, how does Alfa Laval see its role in the industry developing?

We want to move from supplying products to looking at how we can really support the customer across the fuel line. We are unique in that we offer products across the fuel line, but what is the benefit of that to customers? That has been the driving force to start talking about application leadership.

When I worked in the ballast water business, it was very simple – the problem there is clear cut and everyone understands what they are for. When it comes to traditional fue separation, people know that separators are there to protect the engine, but we can do a lot more to increase performance and optimise the fuel line.

It’s not just about the separator, it’s about how it is operated. If I wanted to improve separator performance by 5%, most likely I would run a research and development project for three years that would cost a fortune. But if you are looking instead at impacts – how do I control heat and ensure the right flow, for example – then those improvements come more easily.

That’s where you will see future developments – how do we do things smarter. The steel is the steel. Of course, you can do things there as well, but you need to look at both areas.

What does that application leadership approach mean for your products?

One example is FlowSync. A separator today is quite a simple machine, it either works 100% or not at all. We set out to look at how they were used from more of a process point of view. Often ships are slow steaming, for example. They are set up to run at 100% but they rarely do that. If we can save a lot of energy, we can also increase separation performance and run the units smarter.

We have all components from the tank to the engine, so if we can use that benefit to see how much fuel you are putting to your engine, we can adjust the flow on the separator to make sure you have the right performance. The less fuel goes to the separator, the less fuel you need to heat up, so you save energy. If you have less fuel going to the day tank you don’t recirculate so much and that means you don’t get so much waste. And of course, the less fuel goes to the separators, the more the separation performance improves.

That could be across four or five separators on a newly ordered ship. If you then look at what we can do in the future in terms of connectivity, you could imagine that we could know what bunker was coming onboard and adjust the operation of the separators to account for that. We need to start somewhere and we started with FlowSync because there are a lot of good savings today, but there is potential to take that even further in the future.

What kind of benefit does that thinking have for your customers?

The savings depend on the amount of slow steaming you are doing. If you look at the savings in terms of preventing engine breakdown from cat fines you have a payback time in the seconds, because that would be so enormously expensive. But even with the energy savings alone there is considerable efficiency.

Looking at the redundancy of separators, running them smartly means you can respond if you get bad oil on board. If you start both separators then you can run each at half capacity, which offers better separation than running just the one system. You can run them in eco-mode or protection-mode depending on your operation.

Is this approach of operating systems more smartly something that also applies to your controls?

We use one department for controls because we want to have the same systems and the same logic regardless of what equipment you are using.

Whether it’s a ballast water treatment system or a separator, you should recognise from the controls that it’s an Alfa Laval system. It would be crazy if there were different menus on your iPhone and iPad, you want to be familiar with those controls.

We launched touch controls for boilers recently and that has been developed across the company, so that we all use similar icons and so on. It will come to our separation business in the next year or so.

The separation business also includes some waste management. What kind of developments are you seeing here?

We see lots of owners getting fines. You see companies having to pay US$40 million for putting oily water overboard – even captains going to jail - and we want to prevent that.

There are systems where you can guarantee this won’t happen. Our PureBilge system includes a BlueBox that records everything that goes overboard so you get good safety that way. If you use more static systems, using coalescers and so on, it becomes more complicated.

In the past only 10% of operators used separator systems because they are more expensive. But now it is beginning to get interesting because none of the companies that have been fined were using these systems, they were only using coalescers.

For natural reasons this is becoming extremely important for tankers and oil companies because they don’t want to be involved in these pollution scandals, and similarly for cruise ships.

As environmental regulations take effect ship owners are beginning to look more closely at alternative fuels. Is Alfa Laval also investing in these fuels?

LNG is an increasingly important part of our business. We opened a test centre in Aalborg last year to conduct our own research and training, we have developed dual-fuel boilers and we offer gas combustion units from a company we acquired.

In terms of fuel conditioning we were ready to move prepared for LNG two years ago – although we do not supply the high-pressure pumps needed we can of course buy them in and integrate them. But it seemed there was a lull in the market for LNG and our dual-fuel business instead developed with LPG and methanol fuel conditioning systems. For example, we supplied methanol fuel conditioning for the first seven methanol-fuelled gas carriers.

We are ready for this business and will invest even more as soon as we see the LNG market taking off. Meanwhile we are learning through our experience with other fuels. It’s a high barrier to entry, you don’t just switch from heavy fuel oil to becoming a gas expert overnight. It has taken years for us to build up that experience and application knowledge.

How is Alfa Laval preparing for the fuel challenges raised by the 2020 sulphur cap?

We supply the fuel line. It doesn’t matter what the fuel is, we want to be the leading supplier. That means we need to think about what the future of the fuel line will be and what kind of fuel we will be using. When we look at separators, how will oil be specified in the future, for example? We need to be on top of these things if we want to be in the front seat.

There are different solutions. You can go with gas or you can go with a scrubber and continue using heavy fuel oil, or you can go with low sulphur fuels. We can’t direct which way the market will go so we have created solutions for all of these. We have scrubbers as well as dual-fuel solutions, for example.

I think the real challenge will be low-sulphur fuel. You will have a lot of blending and we will need to see how that impacts stability of the oil, and what that means for the equipment. Also for fuel conditioning systems, handling more fuel types will be a growing challenge and I think you will see these systems becoming more complex.

We will see ships handling three, four or even more types of fuels onboard in future. This already happens today and we will see more of it. You will need to have different tanks depending on bunkering, otherwise there may be stability issues unless you clean the tanks every time. Similarly, you’ll need to adjust separators to handle different fuels.

The companies that succeed in shipping will need to work on this front as well as on smarter operations, and we want to be among them.


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