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Is the Status Quo Acceptable?

Dr. R. Vis, Analytical Services & Materials, Inc. (AS&M)


ABSTRACT: The quality of the bunker fuel is not at a level where one can be happy with the status quo. Fuel-related damages are increasing and the contaminants and adulterations in the fuel have to be looked at. The main thing is the will power of the industry to rid itself of bad fuels which can cause enormous damage to marine machinery.


We have to ask ourselves this question and seek an honest answer. It is not enough if an ISO standard and specification are now available and in use. It is not enough if the industry appears to be stable, big (16 billion dollars), and reasonably globalized. There are indeed many problems.

This situation is analogous to the state of general public health. Everything appears well-defined and under control. Then, an unknown epidemic strikes and wipes out some lives. No one knows what and why. When the number of lives lost is not too many, no further research or follow-up is done – everything is forgotten. There are other ailments that take a toll on human life over time, and even these are not tracked since the damage is slow and gathers over time, and there is no shockingly quick loss of life. Only big ailments affecting a large number of people attract attention.

The current story of the bunker fuel is not very different. A "rogue" fuel – as it is called by the industry – makes its appearance, causes a lot of damage, often incapacitating the ship for days. The damages are referred to as "phantom" damages to the ship’s machinery. Phantom damages due to rogue fuel can damage fuel pumps, cylinder liner, piston rings, cause excessive deposits in combustion and exhaust spaces, and turbocharger, often requiring replacement of expensive spare parts, often bringing the ship operations to a halt and ruining the schedules.

It is argued by some pundits of the bunker fuel quality that the industry can afford to ignore these phenomena since they occur in less than 0.1% of the bunker supplies. Considering that at least 150,000 bunkering operations take place globally, this means at least 150 incidents per year, which can cumulatively cause machinery damage annually amounting to $50-$100 million.

Besides these major damages, there are innumerable minor damages in the form of increased wear rate, increased corrosion, and increased generation of waste products. These, collectively and independently reduce the efficiency of the plant, decrease the speed of the ship, and decrease MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures). The role of rogue fuel in causing insidious phantom damage has never been quantified, but can be guesstimated to run into millions of dollars.

The pity is that most of these damages are not even recognized, much less recorded. Only such of those damages which completely damage the machinery, disrupt the ship's schedule, and cause dangerous situations such as total blackout or drifting powerless mid-ocean, are the ones that are taken serious note of by the ship operators. Even here, since the process of testing the fuel, establishing that the fuel quality alone is the cause of the problem are so lengthy and tiresome, with no guarantee of success, that the operators sometimes find it easier to blame it on the ship staff and conveniently forget the whole incident after a few months. It is not difficult to attribute the cause of damage to overloading the engine or overheating the engine with inadequate cooling, improper operation of the fuel purification plant, etc. – all of which fall under the responsibility of the ship’s operating engineers. Besides, insurance often covers "operator fault" and pursuing this line of thought also does not hurt monetarily!

What are the harmful substances in the fuel that have the potential to cause damage to the engine? Here, we are not talking about the substances that are analyzed, substances that are known to be present in the residual fuel. In fact, we are talking about substances that may have been added to the bunker fuel. The sources for these additions - adulterations may be a better word- are many. The black colored residual fuel conveniently accepts all kinds of stuff thrown into it and does not complain. It is the engine that complains!

It is not necessary to establish every source of every chemical that could have been thrown into the bunker fuel. Why would an unscrupulous bunker supplier adulterate? Let me make it clear that there are two classes of bunker suppliers -- one that adulterates knowingly. The other wants to supply quality bunker fuel and may not even by aware of adulteration. They too supply bad fuel in good faith! The main reason for the adulteration is to cut costs and make more profits. The game plan would be to obtain substances which cost next to nothing and add it to bunker fuel and maximize profits without getting found out. Obviously, none will add a product which is high in sulphur or carbon residue. The analysis of the fuel will reveal this adulteration and possibly throw this fuel out of specifications. Then the whole business is lost, having killed the goose that lays the golden eggs. Sources for products which can be used for adulterating should be available easily. These sources must be eager to get rid of the product since there is a cost associated with the disposal of these products. Just to put some perspective into this, in the USA alone, 1.5 billion gallons of waste oil is disposed of every year -- some converted to diesel fuel, some converted to regenerated lube oil, and others incinerated. Here are some of the sources of products that are used to adulterate bunker fuel:

1) Every ship has one or more waste oil tanks. These tanks collect the sludge from the purifiers, drips and leakages of fuel or lube oil from the engine. These are unusable on board the vessel, and they have to be pumped out to waste disposal sites in various ports.There is a high cost associated with this disposal operation.

2) Industries produce waste oils - mostly lubricating oils used on the machinery - which need to be disposed of after they deteriorate and lose their properties. A prime example is the cutting oils from machine tool industry. These oils cool the cutting tools and also render the cutting process smooth. Due to arduous conditions under which they carry out this function, they deteriorate in quality over time and have to be disposed of. Of course there is a disposal cost associated with this.

Waste oil tanks contain substances that must be disposed of. Cutting oils often contain certain chlorides which are extremely harmful when they get into an engine. For instance, the refinery industry and the pipeline transportation industry are almost paranoid about organic chlorides. They will not allow any crude oil to enter their system that contains more than 3 parts per million (ppm) of organic chlorides. There is enough evidence of ruined refinery equipment as a result of processing crudes with greater than 3 ppm organic chlorides. Besides this, chlorides have the property of accelerating the corrosion process by factors of 50 to 400 particularly in presence of steel which is the manufacturing material for most marine machinery. There are substances such as degreasing agents, disposals from dry cleaning industry, all of which contain organic chlorides. There is a disposal cost associated with these industrial wastes since they are highly toxic and highly harmful if used in any machinery or equipment under exposed conditions.

So, what better way than to dump into this dark viscous uncomplaining undefined residual bunker fuel! Nobody is looking for it, nobody is likely to detect it, the harm it does is not instantly recognizable (unless too much quantity is adulterated due to ignorance or greed). Someone would pay to get it disposed of, and others (the bunker buyers) would pay for it when it is mixed with the bunker fuel. What a convenient temptation! One has to be almost a saint to resist it!

One other important factor that is often missed in assessing the damage caused by adulteration of bunker fuel is CCAI (combined carbon aromaticity index). Unfortunately, the only way the CCAI number is arrived at currently is through a mathematical computation of density and viscosity. When all kinds of things are thrown into the bunker fuel, they often have the effect of delaying ignition, resulting in late combustion, afterburning, and the attendant consequences. The principle attendant consequence is the burning up of the lube oil film on the cylinder liner surface, promoting high wear rate. In addition, afterburning also deposits unburned hydrocarbons in the combustion and exhaust spaces, including turbochargers. These deposits choke up passages, cause overheating, and generally reduce the engine efficiency. The bunker buyer looks at an acceptable CCAI number and goes with the impression that he has purchased a good fuel. However, the effects of adulteration and afterburning are insidious and damage accumulates over time.

In deciding if we would like the status quo to continue, or to improve things in bunker fuel quality, the following points of view have to be addressed:

1) What is the real objection to mixing waste oils to bunker fuel? After all it is being done now on a wide scale and international shipping has not ground to a halt. Every waste disposal is associated with incinerating the waste product. Why not do that inside a diesel engine?

2) The marine industry is not a small one. The marine machinery is not inexpensive. The consequences of damage to machinery are not insignificant- they also impact on the time schedule, contractual obligations and the safety of the ship's crew. Can this industry continue to afford to use a fuel which is ill-defined, inadequately tested and lends itself to adulteration without the possibility of detection?


The two paragraphs above detail the two schools of thought in the bunker industry. It is both a philosophic and economic question.

If we take the aircraft industry we cannot even afford to think along any but the highest standard. This would be the case even if the aircraft carried no passengers and even if the pilot had facilities to eject out of the plane if it got into trouble. Here the choice is clear. Nothing but the best would do. If a better fuel costs more and if the air transportation had to bear this cost, so be it. The added cost is common to the whole industry and is accepted as a part of the technology cost. There are no doubtful points about the clear definition of the aircraft fuel, the method of controlling its quality during manufacture, storage and distribution. Let us face it. The aircraft industry is a glamorous one. If a plane crashes and fifty people die it will be front page news for several days. We have never heard of an aircraft which crashed because the fuel was adulterated. The U.S. government released 500 million dollars for research on aging aircrafts within days of the recent TWA crash off New York. About 150 seafarers have been dying every year due to ships sinking, fire etc. At best this makes news in the twelfth page of a newspaper in an insignificant corner.

There are concerns voiced about "industry practice", "enforcement problems", "increasing operation costs" and "what’s wrong with status quo ?" First of all, if nothing is wrong with status quo and there are no problems with bunker fuel, why are we talking about this topic? There are problems and these problems are mounting. Even classification societies such as NKK have identified the seriousness of the problem and are documenting the incidence of fuel-related damage, analyzing the causes and suggesting solutions.

Take away all the fancy talk, there is only one question. Do we have the will power to face this problem and eliminate it altogether? Do we have the vision to pay a little more but get a fuel which would be beyond reproach?

To me the answer is simple. It is certainly do-able. Heavy and punitive fines can keep a bunker supplier from resorting to any adulteration. The bunker fuel should be purely a product of the distillation process. There should be nothing added to it at any point of time. The bunker fuel should be tested, at least on a random basis, not only for the parameters defined in the specifications but also for other likely sources. A strict vigilance and accounting system for waste products in ports and in ships should ensure that they do not find their way into bunker suppliers’ tanks. There should be a mandatory barge sample analysis and a punitive damage threat over the barge operator to keep him honest and not attempt adulteration on the barge. If all this adds a few dollars to a ton to the cost of the bunker fuel, we should have the far sightedness to absorb it in the operating cost. This way, we will prevent catastrophic damages and losses overtaking a few unfortunate ships and raise the level of confidence in the quality of fuel with the rest of the industry.

We at AS&M have experienced a dramatic increase in fuel-related damages which we address as a part of our failure analysis services. We provide to our customers whose fuels and lubes we also analyze.

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