Recently we saw the announcement from ExxonMobil that they had developed a new ECA compliant bunker fuel which combined the properties of 0.1% Marine Gas Oil (MGO) and 3.5% High Sulphur Fuel Oil (HSFO). It appears that the major has come up with a solution, at least in practice, to the problem of switching between fuels that many chemical tanker owners, indeed owners of all types of tonnage, are currently facing: How to comply with the 0.1% max sulphur emission regulations in the North Sea, Baltic and the coast of US and Canada?
There are a number of compliance options available to all whether this is fitting scrubbers, changing propulsion systems or for those who trade exclusively within these areas solely burning MGO. The common denominator amongst all of these options is one of cost and operational compatibility. The former are all expensive options, particularly when one considers retrofitting an already tightly packed chemical tanker and this is before associated dry dock costs and a loss of revenue. Switching fuels seems like the most suitable option of owners trading in and out of the emission control areas but then the compatibility of the engines comes into play and whether they will be able to handle the differing properties of 3.5% HSFO and MGO. Risk of thermal shock to the engine could be rather high for vessels during a switchover between fuels and can result in fuel pump seizures and engine shutdowns. The reasons for this are that MGO is much less viscous than fuel oil and has great lubricity thus can be kept at ambient temperature whilst fuel oil is the opposite needing a higher temperature to operate.
What ExxonMobil have done is to develop a fuel, called ExxonMobil Premium HDME 50, that has the performance benefits of both fuels. The new fuel contains the low sulphur content associated with MGO (ie. 0.1% compliant) and has the higher flashpoint and lower volatility properties found in HFO. These characteristics will enable operators to comply with ECA regulations and reduce the risk of engine and boiler damage. The higher viscosity of HDME 50 makes storage and handling on board similar to that of conventional HSFO.
This all sounds like the perfect solution! Of course, it may well be just that. However, such is the infancy of this fuel that currently there are no known applications of its use. An Exxon company official has said that they have received ‘no objection letters’ from the engine manufacture MAN Diesel & Turbo for use in the company’s B&W two-stroke and B&W Holeby genset designs. The same official has also stated that the fuel is available from its Antwerp refinery and is available on a spot or contract basis for delivery by barge in the ARA region. Pricing is not currently known although it is believed to be competitive with MGO.
Going forward, it seems that the fuel is only available in Europe at the moment but the company is reviewing refinery options for more production which means that availability in North America and Canada has not been ruled out. This development certainly seems like a step forward and one that will give owners an easier method of compliance but until there is a wider adoption it will be difficult to know if this is the answer to owners’ problems. And so, the old saying of ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’ comes to mind!
Written by Josh Saxby