Preparing for the Challenge: Lubricating Post-Sulphur Cap

Serge Dal Farra
Serge Dal Farra
Total Lubmarine

25 September 2018


The 2020 Sulphur Cap presents a unique challenge to the shipping industry; as it is not simply a question of compliant fuel choice, it is a question of lubricants, too. Marine lubricants suppliers will play a vital role in maintaining vessels and ensuring their effectiveness; an essential partner whatever customer fuel choice. From helping with product choice, to ensuring correct use and efficient monitoring.

As a global marine lubricants supplier and an intrinsic part of the wider Total Group, we support the 2020 Sulphur Cap, and our current strategy reflects that. To the market, it may seem as if lube oil suppliers must simply tweak their existing products to prepare for the reduction to 0.5% Sulphur emissions, but actually, it is not that easy. There are many specific lubrication challenges that will need to be overcome, from fuel quality to optimum BN (base number) levels. It is imperative that marine lubricant suppliers and their customers understand these challenges, and overcome them together.

Primarily, fuel choice is the first decision – one which will heavily affect marine lube companies, as well as their products and services. What we understand from our discussions with customers and with our partners at Total Marine Fuels Global Solutions (TMFGS), is that a limited number of operators have made the choice as to which low sulphur solution they will use. Of course no choice realistically means 0.5% fuel – in order to be compliant in 2020 – and therefore we think there will be a convergence on low sulphur fuel, which why we are developing a brand new product.

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With a multi-fuel era on the horizon, there is an issue around the possibility of poor compliant fuel quality. As lubricant suppliers, questions around quality mean grave concerns about the potential of poor combustion. Simply changing BN levels may not be sufficient to avoid engine fouling, liner scuffing or ring breakdowns – problems costing customers huge amounts in engine maintenance or replacement.

What we do know is that after 2020, BN levels will definitely go down with the lower sulphur content fuel. But, this introduces dynamic issues too, as when BN is reduced through conventional chemistry, there is a reduction in the ability of the lube to keep the engine clean. As mentioned above, combustion is likely to be an issue, meaning an added need for engine cleanliness. Therefore, companies must work to innovate a product that delivers lower BN alongside effective detergency properties.

In order to do this, they must have experience with modern engines and fuels, meaning the importance of working closely with OEMs, proactively harnessing R&D capabilities to deliver a 2020 product that will help customers to ease the pain of the transition. At Total Lubmarine, we want engineers on board our customer’s vessels to know that we are there to help them when 2020 comes around with an array of engineering support services.

To use LNG as an example, there is a very limited experience with LNG on 2-stroke in the entire market. Therefore, it is too early to give an answer on what the exact lubricant challenges will be on a large scale. Despite that, we have OEM recommended products in our range and we fully comply with their guidelines, even if guidelines are adapted as more data is collected. We are also well placed to see the challenges first hand, as Total is a supplier for major shipping companies, and we are learning a lot as they move forward into the future.

In terms of actual transportation logistics, an increase in regulation on fuels as well as specific regional rules regarding bunkering has created (and will continue to create) real complexities in terms of supply. Suppliers have had an increased number of products to deal with, whilst still looking to deliver across their networks. Bear in mind that only a decade ago there were two products for 2-stroke engines, where today we have 6+ products for 2-strokes. Other suppliers have been forced to reduce their number of delivery ports because of this increased complexity, but we are proud to have kept the same network through regulatory challenges.

The introduction of emission control areas (ECAs) in Europe and North America highlight the issues that the industry is already facing – acting as a pre-cursor for the challenges of tomorrow. The 0.1% sulphur cap regulations have been extremely difficult from an engine lubrication point of view.

For example, when a vessel leaves an ECA and switches over from a low to high sulphur fuel, the potential for the worst engine damage occurs. The low base number lubricants designed for 0.1% sulphur fuel simply do not have the basicity to protect an engine from the high levels of acidity in the higher sulphur fuels.

The biggest headache for marine engineers is the business of dealing with so many grades of lubricants on vessels that only have two lube tanks. We’ve had to mitigate these issues in a number of ways. Primarily, our extensive network of expert engineers are always on hand in close proximity to customers – and are able to advise on practical solutions. Secondly, our 100 BN cylinder lube oil, Talusia Optima, has been designed specifically to facilitate fuel switching when transiting both in and out of ECAs, without the need to change lubricants. This is just one example to enable ship operators to make 2020 compliant fuel choices.

With all of this added complexity, the importance of continuous monitoring cannot be underestimated. Achieving the right levels two stroke engine cylinder lubrication is about combining many different operating parameters under the guidance of a lubricant expert. Modern engines are particularly sensitive to corrosive wear and both under and over lubrication can cause expensive, long lasting damage. We believe that our feed rate optimization program is a significant step forward, and feedback from our customers reflects a similar feeling.

To conclude, it would be nice to believe that these complexities would go away with time. But, every viable lubrication solution must be holistic; individually matched with the engine type, engine load and fuel type, as well as operational patterns (slow steaming for example).

It seems that in the lubricants market that there are two schools of thought about 2020. One way is reactive, refining existing products and hoping that they will work. The second is proactive and innovative, delivering products that will focus on the specific challenges of 2020. We have always moved according to our beliefs; and we believe that proactive R&D is the way forward. Technology in the industry is changing all the time, and we must ensure that our approach as a lube oil supplier remains agile for our customers.•