Before the implementation of IMO Sulphur Cap, there were two famous myth busters: firstly that cat fines will be a big problem for the VLSFOs and secondly that the 2018 fuel incidents related to HSFOs from Houston were a pre-warning for VLSFOs issues. The truth is that we expected ‘teething issues’ and huge variations in viscosity, density & cold flow properties of VLSFOs.

What have we seen so far? Definitely what we anticipated. The viscosity range is impressive, namely from 2.2 to 375 cSt, and the overview from January 1st to February 20th is self-explanatory, reflecting the tricky fuel variations that demand a proper on board temperature management. If you look at the density range is from 838 to 989 kg/m³ and the pour point from –33 to +33°C.

The calculated specific energy of VLSFOs is between HFO and MGOs, but any marginal improvement consumptions on board, have to be confirmed by the shipping industry.

As for the quality issues, they were at the maximum in the months of November 2019 and January 2020, including the sulphur values over the limit. However, it seems that the market adapted rather quickly to this compliance element.

If you look at the ‘within 95% confidence limit’ graph starting with the pour point, that is also very relevant to the current discussions about the black carbon emissions, it indicates that 1 out of 4 VLSFOs has a pour point above 18°C, while the corresponding ratio for high sulphur fuel oils is 1 out of 100.

The majority of the off-spec cases are mainly related to high sediments, the sulphur and the water content. If we stick to the sulphur a little bit, approximately 1 out of 100 samples within this period has a sulphur content above 0.53% and the majority of the VLSFO samples has a sulphur content above 0.47%, meaning that the target is blending on the limit.

If we try to combine the viscosity and the sediments, we derive that 5% of the samples with a viscosity below 100 cSt, has a TSP above 0.10%.

The actual summary of problems so far, with clear off-spec cases exceeding ISO 8217, that were confirmed officially, meaning that the barges samples have also been tested in joint analyses with confirming results: We see a lot of unstable fuels affecting the separators and the filters; we had debunkering operations in this respect.

We also see dirty fuels that were not 100% pure hydrocarbons but contained grit, clay or sand, affecting the separators and filters. In addition, there were high pour point fuels (highly parafinic). It is critical if the vessels do not have sufficient heating capacity in the bunker tanks or if they cannot heat at these levels due to sensitive cargo. Therefore it is important that the procurement knows the heating capacity of each vessel, including any trades in cold climates.

What we didn’t expect and was a little bit out of the blue, were some fuels with a very strange odour, initially indicated by bunker surveyors on the field, starting with ARA, Sweden and Fujairah; it was not due to any H2S presence. Then we got complains from several crewmembers, that were literally forced to wear masks, especially in the engine rooms in high temperatures.

Some of the extensive analysis identified 270 ppm of olivetol that links to benzene, giving symptoms like irritation of skin, eyes and upper respiratory. In some other vessels we found Xylene at 200 ppm. This is insoluble in water and its vapours may cause headaches and dizziness.

Of course we need to remember that marine fuels are not a healthy liquid, so they must be treated with equal precaution, smell or no smell. It is imperative that when we order VLSFOs, we get an updated MSDS that covers the composition of VLSFOs explicitly. It is a SOLAS requirement, but vessels still get a lot of outdated MSDS, reflecting high sulphur fuel oil’s composition that is dated back to 2015 or 2016. So they are completely irrelevant to what you are ordering.

In a similar scenario, you have to send the analysis to the supplier, asking for the written confirmation that the fuel is safe to be handled and used, this is where ISO 8217, Clause 5.5 applies. This ISO explains that the fuel shall not contain any additive that would be harmful to personnel.

VeriFuel’s intention is to educate and not to scare. As a fuel tester I could fill my pockets by recommending a myriad of additional tests, in line with the uncertainty of VLSFOs. You may know some of them, especially the in-house test methods that are not industry-accepted, or very expensive packages like peace-of-mind or additional protection services.

We do not recommend all of these, because we do not believe in the value on the routine basis. Special project? By all means. When a vessel does experience problems and when the routine test cannot be of help, or when we see strange combinations of tests results, then investigative analysis may be quite relevant.

Concluding, the importance of representative sampling cannot be overemphasised for both the MAPROL and the commercial samples. The latest ISO 13739:2020 is not a regulation, but a standard that may improve the sample issue. It can be well used in bunker stem enquiries or in charter party clauses, while it also says that:

‘’A single sample should be jointly drawn continuously throughout the delivery, using a sampling device at the receiving vessel’s inlet bunker manifold, unless otherwise specified by the authorities having jurisdiction’’.

The previous standard was stating that a single sample should be taken at either end of the delivery hose, meaning ship’s sample or barge’s sample. However, for practical reasons it was suggesting that the barge’s manifold should be used.

This is a breakthrough and the new standard is recommending that the commercial samples and the MAPROL samples be derived from this single sample from the receiving vessel’s inlet bunker manifold.

Above text is an edited version of Mr. Bill Stamatopoulos’s presentation during the 2020 GREEN4SEA Athens Forum.

You may view his presentation herebelow

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.

About Bill Stamatopoulos, Business Development Manager South Europe, VeriFuel   

Bill Stamatopoulos holds a Bachelor in Business Administration and an MBA with specialization in Total Quality Management from the University of Leicester.  He joined Det Norske Veritas (DNV) in 1991 and in 2010 Bill became the Regional Manager of DNV Petroleum Services for Europe, responsible for sales, lab operations, technical, surveys and consultancy.  From October 1st, 2015, Bill joined Bureau Veritas as Business Development Manager for VeriFuel – Marine Fuel Services. Bill is a co-author of ‘Marine Fuels’ a specialized book in shipping, published in June 2008 and the main author of the new edition published in 2018.  Since 2004, he is a member of the Hellenic Organization for Standardization, Committee 66 for Petroleum Products, appointed by the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping. He is also a member of Intertanko Bunker Subcommittee and part of the Greek Delegation in IMO MSC 101. During the last 20 years, Bill has given several presentations and training courses on all fuel – related issues and has also been involved in major bunker claims as a fuel expert.