“We didn’t imagine that that kind of fuel would be available a few years ago, but as we look more closely at the refinery operations and think about what we could do to meet some of this demand, we are finding that there are solutions that we didn’t realise were potentially there.”
Most large oceangoing vessels run on a petroleum product called heavy fuel oil (HFO), a residual fuel of such high viscosity that it must be heated to upwards of 127°C in order to be used in a ship’s massive engine. In addition, HFO usually contains high levels of sulphur, which is an environmental and health hazard. Sulphur in the air creates acid rain, which damages crops and buildings. When inhaled, sulphur is known to cause respiratory problems and even increase the risk of heart attacks.
In 2010, ships entering the region known as the Baltic North Sea Emission Control Area (ECA) were required to lower the sulphur content of the fuels they used from 1.5 to 1 per cent. In 2012, this was extended to an ECA zone extending 200 nautical miles off the US and Canadian coasts. On January 2015, in four different ECAs around the globe, that level will drop to 0.1 per cent.
WWL has long moved ahead of regulations, with one of the most ambitious policies in the industry on environmental and sustainability issues, including a commitment to using low-sulphur fuels. So when ExxonMobil wanted to field test Premium HDME 50, a new fuel with 0.1 per cent sulphur content, onboard a vessel, the company turned to WWL.
“The purpose of doing the test was to gain OEM approval for auxiliary and main engine use, and to get everyone comfortable that the new product would work,” says Iain White, Field Marketing Manager at ExxonMobil Marine Fuels & Lubricants. “There wasn’t any doubt from our side, but we wanted to do the test because it’s a new, hybrid product.”
He explains that HDME 50 is a heavy distillate produced from crude oil; unlike heavy fuel oils, it does not contain any residual components. As such, it falls between traditional fuel types. “It is a clean product that also has high viscosity, so it really didn't fit in the ISO 8217 specifications for distillate or residual grades,” he says. “This is why we needed to work with a reputable shipping company to effectively demonstrate to the market that this would work satisfactorily. WWL was a natural choice.”
The first test was in the four-stroke auxiliary engine and auxiliary boiler on WWL’s MV Torino, sailing from Zeebrugge in May 2012 to Bremerhaven, Southampton and Tokyo. The second test was in the main, two-stroke engine of the MV Tonsberg, sailing from Zeebrugge to Panama in September 2013. In both cases, the shift over from normal fuel oil to HDME 50 went without incident, and resulted in engine maker MAN Diesel & Turbo, also taking part in the tests, issuing a No Objection Letter.
Most ships today are planning to switch from HFO to marine gas oil (MGO), a 0.1 per cent sulphur distillate fuel, when entering the North American ECA. MGO is much lighter than HFO; it doesn't need to be heated to be used, and in fact problems can occur when it is introduced into a hot system.
“Quite a number of vessels have had power failures coming into the Californian ECA area due to problems with the switchover,” White says. “It’s generically called ‘thermal shock,’ but it can mean gassing up of the distillate, where it loses the ability to flow properly into the system, or fuel system component seizures because the lubricity of the gas oil is lower than fuel oil. The viscosity is extremely low if the MGO is put into a very hot fuel system. Both of these can cause significant problems.”
Another problem, says Kari Haugen, Bunker Manager for WWL, is cost. “Burning gas oil is an alternative for us, but the reason ExxonMobil is developing a new fuel is to find a compliant product that can compete in price – MGO is USD 300 more per tonne than heavy fuel oil. So the arrival of a product like HDME 50 is a very welcome development.”
Today, the product is only available from ExxonMobil’s Antwerp refinery. White adds that similar products are likely to emerge from the company’s other refineries.
“All refineries are different; they run different crudes, they have different units installed,” he says. “We’re learning that other solutions will come out of the refineries. I think we will see fuels like HDME 50, which you’d call a heavy distillate product, and heavy fuels with low sulphur levels like 0.1 per cent. We didn’t imagine that that kind of fuel would be available a few years ago, but as we look more closely at the refinery operations and think about what we could do to meet some of this demand, we are finding that there are solutions that we didn’t realise were potentially there.”
WWL and the Environment
In keeping with a long-term focus on the environment and sustainability, WWL has acted ahead of regulations on sulphur; for more than 10 years the company has had a voluntary policy of maintaining a fleet average of 1.5 per cent sulphur. WWL is now taking a four-stream approach to dealing with sulphur: working with others in the industry to realise bunker with less than 0.5 per cent sulphur content; making use of marine gas oil as a temporary solution; studying LNG, amongst other energy sources; and working with exhaust gas cleaning systems. “We have retrofitted one vessel with a scrubber, and are well into the testing process with it,” Haugen says. “So we have various solutions—we see the need for a number of compliance solutions.”
The world’s largest publically traded oil and gas company, ExxonMobil is also the world’s largest refiner, and one of the largest producers of fuels and oils for the marine market. Headquartered in Irving, Texas, the company employs some 75,000 people in 57 countries.
“With the legislation pending, we at ExxonMobil looked at the opportunities to bring alternative fuels to the marketplace, which would help our customers meet the requirements of the new rules,” White says. “But this is also helping us to create products from the refinery that we would not have otherwise put into the marine business. Our marine and refining organisations are looking at what opportunities there are, and taking a new look at refineries to see what we can do differently to bring new fuels out that would never have been considered before.”