Experts at Bureau Veritas VeriFuel and Veritas Petroleum Services answer the key fuel testing questions for the maritime industry
Shipping is going through a significant shift with the bunker fuels it uses with IMO regulations driving many owners to change to very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) or installing emissions abatement technology. IMO’s 2020 sulphur cap regulation has thus generated considerable questions regarding fuel quality, consistency and testing.
During the ‘Marine Fuel Testing – no easy answers’ webinar on 30 June, two experts in fuel testing tackled some of the biggest questions owners face when dealing with these challenges.
During this event, Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS)’ group commercial and business development director Steve Bee and Bureau Veritas VeriFuel global technical manager Charlotte Røjgaard explained why there are so many technical aspects to testing and differences in fuel quality worldwide. Here are the five key questions and their answers.
Fuel types are proliferating. Is this the right strategy?
When it comes to the proliferation of marine fuels, it is mainly down to suppliers using their stocks of refined oil to meet market demand for different grades. “For the latest ISO 8217 standard, there are seven distillate grades and 11 residual grades,” said Mr Bee. With VLSFO with 0.5% sulphur, “there is such a wide variation in composition” he continued, and there is also ultra-low sulphur fuel oil (ULSFO) with 0.1% sulphur and LNG.
He said there will be more fuels to select from in the future, such methanol, ethanol, LPG, biofuels, ammonia and perhaps hydrogen.
Since the implementation of IMO’s sulphur cap 2020 regulations, VLSFO has been the most popular fuel choice in the supply mix. Of the fuel tested by VPS, 67% was VLSFO, while marine gasoil made up 16% of tested fuel, 16% was heavy fuel oil and just 2% was ULSFO.
The ship operator’s choice of future fuels will depend on their business viewpoint – whether they look short or long term, said Ms Røjgaard.
“We are seeing more interest in the new fuel types that are coming, inspired by IMO 2030 and 2050 targets to decarbonise the industry,” she said.
“At least in the short term, over the next 10 years, the majority of fuels will definitely be petroleum-based and if we look at VLSFO, there is a range of different viscosities.” There will be different fuels to select depending on what investment owners are willing to take.
ISO 8217:2005, 2010/12, 2017, or is it time for ISO 8217:2020?
With at least four different versions of the ISO 8217 standard, there is confusion as to which to use for bunker quality. Mr Bee said VPS would always advocate using the latest (2017) revision “as this is probably going to be the most relevant to the fuels that are around for a while”. But there is variety in the standards fuel is supplied to, with at least 24% of all samples tested to ISO 8217:2005 revision. Most samples (66%) are tested to ISO 8217:2010/12 and just 10% to ISO 8217: 2017.
Therefore, there is still a long way to go before more fuels are tested to the latest revision, which is relevant for VLSFO.
However, there are plans to update standards again to take further consideration of ULSFO and VLSFO, said Ms Røjgaard. “The ISO 8217 committee has initiated work on the next revision, but it takes a minimum of three years to develop an ISO standard,” she said.
Should fuel testing be streamlined?
Shipowners and managers say fuel testing is complex and could be streamlined for simplicity and lower cost. However, Mr Bee said this testing complexity results from the wider variety of components within, and blending of, marine fuels. “More testing is actually required, to ensure vessel protection, not less,” he said.
Testing this year has already identified quality issues in VLSFO, heavy fuel oil and gasoil. “VPS has sent out 28 alerts between January-May 2020, versus 12 in the same period in 2019,” said Mr Bee. “Fuel quality is more questionable than in 2019.”
The main bunker alerts for VLSFO so far this year were for sediment, flash point and potassium. For heavy fuel they have been for density, cat-fines, flashpoint, sediment and potassium, while marine gasoil issues have been from viscosity and flash point.
How can different laboratories produce different results?
There is appetite in the shipping community for more standardisation of testing and less variety of results from different laboratories. To answer this, Ms Røjgaard reminded webinar attendees that test results were “only as good as the samples received”.
She recommended shipowners check whether testing labs were ISO 17025 accredited and that testing was standardised. Owners should ask whether testing is proprietary, whether laboratories are using the same test methods and do they allow witnesses for transparency?
“All test methods have an inherent level of test variability,” Ms Røjgaard said.
Mr Bee said reputable laboratories were accredited to ISO 17025 for quality management and there were set parameters in ISO 8217. “There are internationally recognised test methods,” he said. “Any variation between results should be within the reproducibility of the test method. Test methods should be consistent between labs.” The robustness of a test method is determined through round-robin programmes with 95% confidence limits to these tests.
Is fuel contamination and phenol still a concern?
With increasing use of various fuels and blending, there are risks of higher contamination levels, while ship operators lack knowledge of the exact chemical content of bunkers. In addition, there are still doubts over the risks of operational issues from these contaminants. “No one can provide you with a full list of chemical species, in which concentration or in which combination,” said Ms Røjgaard. “The ISO 8217 spec is on the property and performance of fuel, not on the chemistry,” she said.
There have been cases where contaminants in bunkers were discovered during investigative testing after operational issues were recorded. For example, polymers such as polystyrenes were discovered in some marine fuel in 2004 and polymethacrylates were found in 2010-2011. In 2004, chlorinated hydrocarbons were discovered in certain marine fuels.
In the latest documented fuel issue, in Houston, US in 2018, 4-cumyl-phenols were found in some fuels. VPS identified more than 200 vessel operational issues due to fuel with 4-cumyl-phenols contamination until Q3 2018.
But, Ms Røjgaard said these cumyl-phenols “are regularly found in fuels supplied in, for example, Fujairah, with concentrations as high as 4,000 parts per million (or 0.4%), and operators burn these fuels with no problems”.
Nonetheless, Mr Bee recommended vessel operators undertake chemical contamination screening using gas chromatography, mass spectrometry testing as this detects many chemical contaminants.
“Increased levels of blending opens up more potential for contamination,” said Mr Bee, adding these contaminates could lead to fuel handling issues if they are not fully understood by operators.
“Chemical contamination can occur within residual and distillate grade fuels at any time, or any place,” Mr Bee said. “Regular screening can provide a proactive preventative tool and avoiding engine damage or failure.”