Why Not Supply Purified ISO Heavy Fuel to Ships?

(Updated 31 November 2016)

M&O loves training new consultants. We look for people who are smart, with great basic training and, most of all, people who are inherently inquisitive and will ask the questions that lead to new knowledge for all of us.

So, we are in the middle of dealing with a heavy fuel oil claim and our most recent newbie asks: Why are ships not supplied with pre-purified fuel oil?

That stopped us old ones in our tracks, and elicited the immediate standard defensive response: “Good Question?!”

And then one begins to think……

Let’s look at the history of this:

  1. First there was Crude oil.
  2. That was refined and we were left with the heavy messy stuff.
  3. Then we realized this stuff is just great for boilers in steam ships.
  4. Then diesel engines started to develop as more efficient ship propulsion systems.
  5. Then we started developing diesel engines that would run on something that was pretty much boiler fuel to reduce fuel costs.
  6. But this fuel was a little more difficult to feed to diesel engines so we fitted purifiers and filters aboard these heavy fuel powered diesel vessels.
  7. There was only so much purifying and filtering that can be done so we developed heavy fuel oil specifications, basically requiring carefully blended fuel oil and that next gets further cleaned aboard the ship.
  8. The sludge that gets separated aboard the ship gets sent back to shore or burned as waste aboard the ship (and hopefully not dumped into the ocean).
  9. This worked after a fashion, and steam ships pretty much disappeared, and now all ships purify and filter heavy fuel supplied by refineries that is produced to a carefully defined ISO standard that limits contaminants, but still requires further filtering and purification.
  10. And the odd end result is that the fuel that gets supplied to ocean going ships is basically half dirty stuff that needs to be further cleaned in a sophisticated and labor intensive small batch fashion aboard the ships it is supplied to.

But does this make sense? This is a typical case where a historical stepwise sequence results in a weird solution. There are many such weird end results in our lives (Think tax codes), we just tend to get used to them, and sometimes they are so well established that they cannot be corrected. But this is the maritime world and change can happen.

  • Why do small batch cleaning by non-expert personnel if it can be done more effectively ashore at a larger scale?
  • Why force ships to carry around the waste of the cleaning process, burn it or return it to shore if it could be kept ashore to start with?
  • Why install thousands of small purifiers on ships, if, say, a hundred big ones can do the job ashore?
  • Why not have the refineries perform the purification and provide certified purified fuel oil, ready to heat and send to the engines (possibly after some settling and filtering) instead of half purified fuel oil?
  • Why not reduce ship crew workloads?
  • Why not make ships and the world more efficient?

Yes, the fuel will cost a little more, but the overall system benefits should pay off handsomely.

Why not?

Update: The beauty of blogs is that they hang around and can be found on the internet. The downside of blogs is that they can hang around with information that is not 100% correct. In late November 2016, Hannah came across the notes of a 2006 lecture by Capt. LeCalvez which stated the following:

The fuel used in vessels propulsion engines is a product from end of distillation of crude oil, directly unusable. This fuel requires purification by centrifugation, in order to eliminate water and abrasive particles of heavy metals (vanadium, nickel) sediments and others. This operation has to be carried out by the vessel and generates approximately 1% of residues which have to be either unloaded periodically, or incinerated progressively, but in no case dumped overboard. The logical alternative to make the poor sailor’s life easier would be to carry out this operation industrially ashore, at refining exit, but unfortunately, this residue generated has a commercial value in some countries of south-Saharan Africa and in China. It concerns very little our developed countries, which prefer to delegate to the vessels the management of these undesirable goods.

There are many good ideas out there; the hard part is to get them implemented.

There may be another solution; simply stop burning heavy fuel oil. And with LNG and low sulfur standards, this may occur before we manage to supply ships with ready to use HFO. Then again, with low SOX and NOX standards maybe suppliers will figure out a way to supply ready-to-burn HFO at the same time.