Future fuel challenges and the promise of data
During a bustling SMM week in Hamburg, representatives of ship owners, engine builders and fuel and lubricant specialists gathered to discuss engine condition challenges and potential solutions.
Taking place just over a year ahead of IMO’s global sulphur cap, the fifth ExxonMobil roundtable, organised by The Motorship, could only have been dominated by one theme. Titled ‘Data-driven cylinder condition strategies for a complex future’, the event brought together key industry representatives for a frank discussion on the uses of engine condition monitoring, big data and smart shipping.
With well over 95% of the industry expected to opt for compliant, 0.50% sulphur fuel come 1 January 2020, talk of the impending challenges caused by an across-the-board switch to low-sulphur fuel could fill entire agendas and was no doubt the focus of many conversations across SMM.
The roundtable was ably moderated by Alexander Strøm, principal engineer – machinery, DNV GL Maritime. With a wealth of knowledge in both fuels and engines, he was well placed to marshal the debate. Looking at the looming sulphur challenges, Strøm drew on his experience at DNV Petroleum Services, now the independent Veritas Petroleum Services, when emission control areas (ECAs) were being introduced, to highlight potential concerns.
“When we saw the ECA change down to 1.50% and 1.0% sulphur, the fuel was not usually available until it happened,” he recalled. “If you looked for compliant fuel three months in advance, it wasn’t there. And then we saw issues that you couldn’t see when you looked at the ISO 8217 fuel specification – we saw cat fine challenges and poor ignition and combustion properties that gave engines starting problems. We saw compatibility issues that led to fuel sludging and blocking filters.”
History tends to repeat itself, Strøm noted, and the change down to 0.50% sulphur is a big step – not just in terms of sulphur content but also because of the global nature of the shift. Iain White, global engineering manager, ExxonMobil, noted that even with low-sulphur residual fuels, some of the essential characteristics would be very different to traditional heavy fuel oil.
A NEW ERA
“In the single-fuel world of the past 25-30 years, everyone has been used to having a fuel with a viscosity of 380mm2/s and a density close to the limit of 0.991g/cm3,” he said. “Today you rarely get residual fuel with a sulphur content beyond 3.50%, so the industry blends to hit those two targets. A year from now the target will be sulphur and to hit that, there will be at least some distillate in the blend. So, viscosity and density won’t be relevant targets anymore because they will be much lower. That’s the challenge for the ships’ engineers.”
Even more challenging will be the fact that these characteristics will not be consistent across ports or suppliers, he added. If the product comes directly from a refiner, the viscosity and density may be relatively high. If the fuel comes from a third-party blender – as it does in Singapore, the world’s largest bunkering port – they might vary dramatically. And at ports far away from the main hubs, distillate fuels may be the only compliant option available.
The variety of fuel characteristics will require crews to be highly aware of compatibility, stability and handling issues, White stated. A resurgence in cat fines is also likely due to the type of fuel streams that refiners will prefer to use to mix low-sulphur fuel blends. One typical stream is cat cracker bottoms, which will undoubtedly feature catalyst residue.
There is legal protection against excessive cat fines in the international ISO 8217 standard, particularly the 2017 version. But, as explained by Steve Walker, global marine equipment builder manager, ExxonMobil, contract negotiations mean that this protection is often discarded.
“Ship owners usually stipulate ISO specification in charters, but the first thing that gets changed is the 2017 standard for the 2005 specifications. There are a lot of learned people in the ISO working group that try to give the owner the protection he needs for his engine, yet it’s the first thing that gets scrubbed off the charter contract.”
But perhaps the most effective form of protection against fuel issues is ensuring that the crew knows how to process it. Kjeld Aabo, director, MAN Energy Solutions, recalled his lessons from the introduction of fuel switching requirements in California and the Port of Los Angeles.
“I took part in a lot of presentations, asking ship owners to take care. For example, if you switch from a heavy fuel oil to a distillate and you have worn-out pumps, you may not be able to keep up the pump pressure needed for the lower viscosity. But maybe the industry should have done more – many container vessels had problems and there were some quite serious situations. It was obvious that there was a lack of understanding and communication. So, the fuel itself is one issue, but we also need to make sure that everyone knows how to handle it properly.”
As always in shipping, timing is everything. In the case of the low-sulphur switch over, knowing when to begin the process – taking on compliant bunker and emptying tanks of old fuel - will be crucial if owners are to avoid being left with non-compliant fuel in their tanks on 1 January 2020. While ship owners may be able to plan this for themselves, the involvement of charterers makes the process more difficult.
According to Lieven Van Eetvelde, technical manager – dry bulk at Antwerp-based ship owner CMB: “Charterers will want to run on high sulphur heavy fuel oil until 31 December, so it will be a headache for the last months of 2019 deciding which tanks to clean and which to keep for high-sulphur fuel.”
It is a concern shared by ship owner associations. Jonathan Spremulli, marine director, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), points to the organisation’s impending guidance about implementing sulphur compliance. This includes discussion about when in 2019 low-sulphur bunkering needs to start.
“Charterers need to be in no doubt that it’s not in their interest if one of their ships is detained because onboard is oil that doesn’t comply with the regulations,” said Spremulli. “We are working with BIMCO to put a clause into the charter which effectively tells charterers that we can’t afford to take the charter unless they agree to the implementation plan.”
There are myriads of other issues around the sulphur cap, not least around the other two compliance options of adopting scrubbers or installing engines capable of burning LNG. But for most of the world fleet, the concerns will revolve around the availability and safety of compliant, low-sulphur fuels. In terms of engine condition, the resurgence of cat fines will be an issue to watch as they can lead to significant issues and operational problems in as little as 24 hours.
But engine condition challenges will not start and end with the 2020 legislation. The IMO’s recent initial greenhouse gas emission reduction strategy sets ambitious targets for cutting CO2 emissions by 2030 and 2050 – by which time the regulator intends shipping to have halved its emissions (from a 2008 baseline). This target will mean not only new fuels but also advanced engine technologies and novel, renewable power sources.
“It’s not just sulphur, although we are staring down both barrels of that change at the moment,” says Walker. “As we go beyond 2020 and start chasing ever more stringent CO2 legislation, machinery will evolve to the point where it needs better monitoring. It will become more temperamental and we’re going to have to deal with that in several ways. You’ll need better monitoring, higher quality lubricants. That’s where I think the monitoring solutions really do start to help, as engine conditions get more stressed.”
Emissions regulations are becoming increasingly inseparable as they become more onerous. A good example is the use of scrubbers to meet the 2020 sulphur rules, and their knock-on impact on energy use and hence CO2 emissions.
CMB has placed a limited scrubber order to understand how the technology can work, but Van Eetvelde is unconvinced, partly because of the energy demand.
“You end up with big pumps and probably need to run two instead of one auxiliary at sea – and in some cases maybe even all auxiliaries, which is a huge risk. So, the charterer will profit from cheap fuel, but the day things go wrong it will come back to you like a boomerang because it’s your vessel.”
The roundtable guests agreed that the complexity caused by increasing emission regulations will require more sophisticated engine and cylinder condition strategies in the future. Thankfully, the increasing digitalisation of the maritime industry may offer some potential in this area.
Further developments in monitoring would enable operators to investigate the performance and condition of their turbochargers and fuel-injection systems, Räss noted. However, such developments are only the beginning of what will be needed, said MAN’s Aabo. He observed that the data will need to be communicated and shared effectively, while solving the issue of its ownership would also be crucial.
“It’s like the internet when it first arrived,” says Aabo. “The opportunities just grew bigger and bigger. Digitalisation will be the same. But I think there must be a limit to the values that are interesting. We have test vessels and we get so much data – who is going to analyse all of this? Data must be relevant and structured, otherwise it will be a killer.”
That point was reinforced by CMB’s experience. The company recently spoke to several companies about monitoring hull fouling. But, said Van Eetvelde, the process of teaching each company about CMB’s requirements was so onerous that they scrapped the project, instead asking an employee – who had written a thesis on hull monitoring – to do the job.
Van Eetvelde also urged caution on both the quality and quantity of data companies could face. “It is difficult how much bad data you automatically put into your system. If no-one is checking your data as you receive it, you are just gathering the wrong data because some sensors can give faulty information while others need manual inputs that can go wrong if people don’t use a standard format. It sounds easy but sometimes the best ship in your fleet might look like the worst just because people are inputting wrong.”
The need for correct formats and standards was key point in the discussion. Lars Robert Pedersen, deputy secretary general, BIMCO, also drew comparison to the fledgling internet when he discussed the need for standardisation.
Pedersen said: “Digital solutions really get us nowhere until we get a proper set of standards for data transfer and display. The internet is a success because of standardisation, Browsers build a standard to display the same things – you don’t need individual applications for all the billions of service providers.”
The question of who owns the data is relatively simple – in most cases it belongs to the ship owner. Most of the challenges revolve around how data is shared, with all the thorny problems over compatibility and standardisation. But perhaps a more fundamental question is why should ship owners share their data? The answer comes down to value.
Aabo says: “There needs to be a very clear advantage before you invest in something, and I think it will be the same with digitalisation. Otherwise the owner will believe that they should get it for free. And if that’s the case, what is the incentive for us to provide it?”
WinGD’s Räss highlighted how ship owner data could enable OEMs to design better components but questioned whether owners would be willing to pay a premium for such a product.
For ExxonMobil’s White, the value proposition of new technology as well as the speed and accuracy it can provide is key, and is something that has been evident as the company developed its cylinder condition monitoring programme to incorporate data and digital solutions.
The latest iteration of ExxonMobil’s cylinder condition monitoring service, on display at SMM in September, features new onboard equipment that provides read-outs for iron content and residual base number, in seconds. Mobil Serv Cylinder Condition Monitoring, which deploys patented X-ray fluorescence (XRF) technology, also sends the results to the cloud, where ExxonMobil runs them through its patented algorithms before transmitting a report back to the ship, showing the results, highlighting trends and offering guidance where needed, all within minutes.
White says: “We are interested in looking at how we add services to our portfolio to support how the ships are operated. That means using new kinds of sensors to give us a real idea of what’s going on in the engine. We started our programme in 2002 when the focus was just on optimising the feed rate to help the owner use less cylinder oil. The second evolution was to help manage cold corrosion. We’re now on our third generation, which looks to automate the data transfer with the aim of giving a much better experience to engineering crews by making it easier to receive data and insights.”
The renewed programme is one example of how digitalisation in shipping is progressing not necessarily through entirely new ideas – condition monitoring has been around since men started kicking their tyres, Räss observes – but through adding value. Proving that value to ship owners – by making operations simpler, cheaper, more accurate and more environmentally sound – is the challenge of digital service providers.
DNV GL’s Strom concludes: “It is still early days for digital solutions in the shipping industry. Can we get lower insurance premiums if we monitor? Maybe, but class will still want to inspect, for now. Can we hire cheaper engineers? Maybe, but someone still needs to get their hands dirty and fix the ship when they are in the middle of nowhere. The field is starting to open, and we are looking at new ideas and further development. But we still have some way to go.”
TOP FIVE TAKEOUTS
- An increase in cat fines in fuel is expected as refiners use different streams to blend low-sulphur fuels – just as happened with the introduction of sulphur emission control areas.
- Protect yourself from low-sulphur fuel challenges by educating your crew, insisting on the latest ISO 8217 specifications and beginning implementation well ahead of 1 January 2020.
- There is potential for data to transform how we monitor cylinder and engine condition, but to encourage further uptake basic data challenges around quality, format, standardisation and ownership need to be addressed.
- Increasingly stringent regulation of CO2 emissions will put even more strain on engine condition parameters, making cylinder condition monitoring essential long-term.
- Data can be collected from almost anywhere – the key is to ensure accuracy and to make it relevant and valuable to ship owners, ultimately by making operations more efficient and reducing cost.
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