I was genuinely surprised to be writing a news story recently that a company had been prosecuted for a 'magic pipe' incident in the USA. I had thought the trick of using a hose to divert oil water waste was far too well known to be used in modern shipping, yet it seems to be a regular activity.
Another common old trick in shipping has been to deliver 'cappuccino' bunkers. As many of you will be aware, this involved blowing compressed air through the bunker delivery hose, or introducing air in another manner, creating bubbles in the tank that give a much higher level of fuel reading than the volume actually delivered. Days later, the fuel settles and burps out the air and, too late, the chief engineer finds the delivery is short.
Singapore used to be infamous for this activity, but the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore introduced mandatory mass flow metering (MFM) on bunker delivery barges. As the name suggests, MFM measure mass flow, not apparent volume, which is what allows the cappuccino effect to fool the dipstick.
MFM is highly accurate – to around 0.1% – but still needs to be calibrated. It was an engineer from a calibration company, Petro Inspect, that discovered there had been attempts to hack the MFM, a story researched and broken by Ship & Bunker.
MFM uses the Coriolis effect, which measures the perceived motion of a body or liquid moving in a straight line over a rotating body or a frame of reference.
This is fairly high-level physics, at least for me, but involves using the inertia of the flowing liquid over vibrating tubes, with the differential of the twist force exerted on the tubes recorded being the mass flow.
With so few moving parts in a sealed unit, it was thought MFM was incorruptible except in the most obvious manner such as a 'magic pipe' which is also likely to produce an inprobable reading.
However, apparently criminal masterminds have contrived a far more ingenious means of deceit.
According to Petro Inspect, its engineers found evidence of very powerful rare-earth magnets being taped to the MFM at the approximate point of the magnetically-induced vibrating tube. One part of me almost appreciates this level of engineering corruption – to understand the operation of MFM, then find a way to disrupt the outcome of a tool widely perceived as incorruptible. Going to these lengths also speaks volumes (pun intended) of the desperation inside the bunker industry. Of course, the marginal gains could be enormous – to under-deliver by 0.1% for weeks or months at a time would produce extraordinary profits compared to normal operations.
The extension of the magnet issue question is: to what extent, if any, has this occurred on the cargo delivery side of the tanker business? I have not read or been told of this occurring, but tampering with bunker MFMs was new to me, so what is to say it has not? The MFMs used in cargo delivery are much larger, but I assume they could be tampered with in the same way. The impact over time of tiny percentages of cargo recorded as delivered to the tanker but still ashore, with the tanker operator not recieving freight could amount to millions of dollars of ill gotten gains – and who is to know?
Tanker Shipping & Trade has a feature on cargo control and monitoring in a forthcoming issue and I would be interested to have feedback on the issue of MFM measurement and if they could be tampered with in the same way. Please contact email@example.com