Onboard engineers face operational challenges post-2020

Many shipboard engineers have not received adequate training on handling sulphur-cap-compliant fuels, despite potentially having to deal with situations arising from stability and compatibility problems, believes a leading marine engineer who was involved in drafting MARPOL Annex VI.

Andy Wright, a fellow of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST), told ShipInsight that the problems are not new, but “there’s a greater likelihood [of them occurring] than in the past” because “there is almost a surety of much greater variability than people have ever been used to in the past.” This variability will be particularly relevant, he said, “where you are pushed to take more fuel than you can store in a segregated manner.”

But he commended work done by the International Chamber of Shipping, which has produced a guide for shipping companies and crews on how to prepare for compliance with the new fuel standards, and similar guidance on the supply and use of 0.50% sulphur fuel produced by an 11-member joint industry project (JIP).

Mr Wright said that many owners will have passed those documents to their ship staff but whether their advice has been understood is another matter; “you can lead a horse to water …”, he said. And many crews will not have seen those documents, he believes, because of the widespread use of contract crew. Under some arrangements of that type, “the old historic link between the shipowner and the ship crew is broken,” he said and the crews’ managers may not have provided those documents.

He was speaking to ShipInsight after addressing a symposium last Thursday (17 October), held at IMO’s London headquarters into the implications of the impending sulphur cap and alternative fuels, where he gave an impassioned assessment of some of the problems that will face onboard marine engineers who will have to “transform that fuel into power.”

In making one of his points, he showed a picture of a fuel transfer room containing two pumps: one lagged, for handling heated heavy fuel, and one – for distillate fuel – not. “Can the heated heavy fuel oil pump handle low viscosity material?” he wondered. And can the other “handle fuel with poor cold flow properties? This is going to be an important part of managing these fuels.”

He also predicted that more internal fuel transfers will be needed with the new fuels, thanks in part to the need to segregate bunker stems. But when transferring fuels with high pour points through exposed deck pipelines in the middle of winter, “it will be solid before it’s halfway down the deck and then [it will be necessary to] dismantle those pipes and dig it out.”

He also had concerns about whether fuels will always meet the sulphur limit. At present, with 3.5% sulphur fuels, very few bunker stems are close to that limit. But once 0.50% sulphur fuels become the norm, “we might run into a situation where 99% of the fuels would be supplied close to the sulphur limit.” Distillate fuels can naturally have a sulphur content of more than 0.5%, he said, so “are we actually getting what was ordered before we even take it on board?” he asked. As engineers, “if we don’t see [the fuel] as it’s being loaded [or] know its origin or its background and just sign off on it, then we’re effectively hanging ourselves,” he said.

And the fuel must be homogeneous, he said. Its average might be, for example, 0.48% sulphur, but if it is not homogenous and is being loaded into a number of tanks, the contents of one tank might be below the limit while that in another tank but be above it. “Bunker management begins before we get the bunkers,” he said and cautioned that engineers must pay attention to the data that it is supplied with it. “Once the fuel’s gone solid because its pour-point is above the ambient temperature, it’s solid for a long time thereafter,” Mr Wright said.

If compliant fuel is not available and non-compliant fuel is taken on board against a fuel oil non-availability report (FONAR), “re-establishing compliance will be a heavy engineering load. It is a big operation to get it cleaned up again,” he said.

Despite these concerns, Mr Wright expressed confidence that engineering crews will be able to cope with their challenges. “The knowledge of how to deal with an incompatibility or stability issue should be the type of thing that engineers have as part of their training,” he told ShipInsight. And IMarEST has provided support for its members by distributing the JIP document and making further information available via the members-only areas of the institute’s website.

Nonetheless, “I wish we had more feedback” about the guidance and training that is being offered to onboard engineers, he told ShipInsight. “There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be up to the challenge [but] it does require a greater flexibility of mind.”

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