How ship operators can organise the switch to low-sulphur fuel

ExxonMobil's John LaRese explains how to comply with the IMO’s 0.5% sulphur cap by 2020 

How ship operators can organise the switch to low-sulphur fuel

By Rebecca Gibson |

The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) decision to implement a 0.5% cap on sulphur emissions has created uncertainty among passenger ship and other vessel operators. Questions are already being asked about how to comply with the changing emissions target, as well as what types of fuels will be available and where. However, ensuring compliance isn’t just about fuel selection; the actual switchover process from heavy fuel oil (HFO) to new, low-sulphur alternatives needs careful management. There are also implications for the selection of lubricants.

Vessel operators will need to take a series of important steps before bunkering a low-sulphur fuel; they will have to work out arrangements that meet the specific requirements of their vessels. Without careful preparation operators may jeopardise their sulphur compliance, which carries the risk of costly fines. They must also plan around fuel availability, given the possibility that some ports may be unable to meet the demand from the industry.

Unless a vessel is fitted with an exhaust gas cleaning system (scrubber), operators will need to ensure that their fuel tanks do not contain high-sulphur HFO by the IMO deadline. Fuel tanks will probably retain sediment from the existing HFO, which is likely to contain those higher levels of sulphur. If this is not removed, there is the risk that the compliant fuel will be contaminated, pushing its sulphur content above the 0.5% limit.

ExxonMobil expects that many compliant fuels entering the market will have a sulphur content very close to the 0.5% cap, so even minimal levels of residual sulphur left in a fuel tank could tip a vessel over the IMO’s compliance limit.

To minimise this risk, ExxonMobil recommends that vessel operators flush fuel tanks with a distillate-based product, which will help remove sludge deposits. This process may need to be repeated, depending on the amount of residue present. In some instances, tank bottoms may have to be manually cleaned.

The fuel used to flush tanks could contain damaging levels of cat fines, which will require onboard treatment. Vessel operators must factor in how long these processes could take and keep in mind that any sludge removed from the tanks will need to be disposed of properly.

Operators should remember that the storage, handling and treatment of 0.5% sulphur fuels will involve bunkering fuels of a wider variety of viscosities, types and formulations than seen today. Onboard handling practices have to take into account likely changes in fuel types, including fuel segregation and routine compatibility testing.

One benefit of the 0.5% sulphur cap is that vessels will be able to streamline their lubricant inventory because they will only require one cylinder oil. Vessels with scrubbers will continue to use HFO and high base number (BN) oils, while those who choose to switch to low-sulphur fuels will need correspondingly low-BN formulations. These vessels must deplete their stocks of high-BN cylinder oils prior to the IMO deadline to avoid waste and disposal costs.

To ensure compliance, ExxonMobil recommends that vessel operators work with suppliers who have adopted the latest ISO 8217:2017 fuel standard and have the proven technical expertise to help them navigate the upcoming changes.

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