Lubes headache brewing

Fuel choices have obscured the complex issues over lube selection ahead of IMO 2020. Here’s a useful guide to the problems coming up and how to handle them.

The vast column inches spent on next year’s fuel conundrum for owners have obscured another mounting headache come the onset of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) global sulphur cap.

Shipowners need to be aware today that come January 1, 2020 their bills for lubricants are likely to spike and the availability of the right lube to match the brave new low sulphur world could well be in short supply.

Warns Caroline Huot, global head of lubricants at Cockett Marine Oil, an affiliate of Vitol and Grindrod, “Cylinder oils availability will be just as much of a risk to slowing global trade when IMO 2020 starts as sourcing suitable compliant ship fuels in the desired location.”

Huot, a 20-year veteran of the lubes business, tells Maritime CEO in a special IMO 2020 compliance guide launched yesterday: “Owners in general, except the very big ones with sufficient in-house lubrication expertise, have understandably been obsessed by fuels and have not greatly thought things through regarding lubes and IMO 2020.”

Explaining the situation, Huot starts with two stroke engines for non-scrubber fitted ships, i.e. more than 90% of the global merchant fleet.

Cylinder oil issues for these ships can be divided in two – for vessels built pre-2010 where the impact is lesser and for more modern vessels built after 2010.

All ships without scrubbers will have to change their lubricants. Typically ships with engines built pre-2010 use today cylinder oil with a base number (BN) of 70 when they burn high sulphur fuel, whereas more modern ships fitted with long strokes and super long stroke engines will use BN 100 cylinder oil as they face the risk of cold corrosion particularly when slow steaming.

“The problem is,” explains Huot, “once you have to adopt burning 0.5% sulphur fuel globally and permanently you will need also to adopt permanently lower BN cylinder oils, BN 40 and BN 25.”

Modern vessels face either a risk of cold corrosion (not enough alkalinity to neutralise the corrosive effect on liners), something Huot describes as a dangerous phenomenon and a silent enemy or these ships risk the fast generation of hard deposits on the piston crown generated by excess or unused BN additive. Ships from next year face damage either to liners or to rings and bearings.

Huot is concerned with the lack of enough operational experience in using these lower number BN oils. Shipping has been using lubes with lower BN (BN 40) for more than a decade, but only on niche trades or regions such as South America and West Africa where fuels are naturally low sulphur and require such a product.

However, because of their niche nature, these BN 40 oils have struggled in the past to get easy OEM approval as it was difficult to find vessels staying long enough or burning permanently LSFO to comply with the number of running hours required by the field tests.

More recently with the creation of emission control areas (ECAs) where the use of marine gas oil or ULSFO is mandatory, it has been necessary to use even lower BN cylinder oil (BN 15-25) and again the use of such cylinder oil – except for smaller vessels trading the ECAs permanently – is not extensive when it comes to bigger bore engines and global trading patterns.

There are a few mitigating solutions to fight the oncoming confusion and chaos likely in early 2020, according to Huot.

Owners and managers will need to make the most of used oil analysis to check and anticipate as much as possible cold corrosion (specific drain oil analysis) as well as additives hard deposit traces and get used to trend monitoring as well as be ready to use a way higher number of analysis than ever before, which will have an impact in terms of costs.

People will need to be trained both onboard and on shore to analyse the results of the reports and follow up the trend very carefully to avoid costly maintenance issues and then carry out feed rate adjustments accordingly as well as other mitigating measures.

There’s then the issue of costs. Not unlike the low sulphur fuel prices that are so obsessing the minds of the world’s shipowners now, the industry needs to be aware that as this previously niche BN 40 lubrication goes global as it is already priced today higher than usual cylinder oil, it is unlikely to see any adjustment downwards. On the contrary, the price is likely to go up.

Moreover, its availability everywhere is by no means guaranteed with Huot predicting it’ll take anywhere from nine to 18 months after January 1 next year before supply chain disruptions ease and global availability is ensured.

“Historically any roll out of a new grade of cylinder oil has been very slow,” the lube veteran points out.

“We expect the start of 2020 to be very hectic in terms of availability and potentially subsequent breakdowns.”

And for those who have bought a scrubber? Can they breathe easy? To begin with, yes, but like with the fuel scenario, as BN 40 becomes more commonplace, say by 2021, then the availability and price of today’s traditional cylinder oils, the BN 70 and 100 varieties, may likely change dramatically too.

IMO 2020’s chicken and egg head scratching over fuel prices next year looks like it is very much being replicated in the lubes sector too, something of serious concern for owners given that lubricants today make up 10 to 13% of a typical ship’s daily opex.

This article appears in Maritime CEO’s IMO 2020 compliance guide published yesterday in association with Cockett Marine Oil. Splash readers can access the full magazine for free by clicking here.

Are you an owner, operator or manager with questions about IMO 2020 compliance? Come along to our exclusive workshop to discuss all fuel and lube concerns to be held at midday at the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore on April 8. If you’d like to attend, contact grant@asiashippingmedia.com

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