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Fuel Contamination Issue – a VPS Update on Challenges & Solutions

10 Aug 2022

Steve Bee, Group Commercial & Business Development Director of marine fuels testing company VPS, on Monday (8 August) shared its testing role in using GCMS chemical analysis to detect contaminants present in marine fuel – including contaminated bunkers delivered to vessels in the port of Singapore in February.

Within only six months from the first reported cases of contaminated HSFO fuel being delivered to vessels bunkering in Singapore, the MPA have concluded a thorough investigation and taken the firm action of suspending the bunkering licence of supplier, Glencore.

This contaminated fuel, delivered between February-March 2022 to over 200 vessels, negatively affecting the operation of over 80 vessels, was first detected and reported by VPS.

Using proprietary Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GCMS) methodologies and many years of forensic fuel experience and expertise, VPS identified the contaminants as four specific chlorinated hydrocarbons:

Fuel Contamination Issue – a VPS Update on Challenges & Solutions

These compounds are not part of the refining process of crude oil and as such, should not be present within marine fuels, as stated under Section 5 of the international marine fuel standard, ISO8217.

As a result of these initial findings, the MPA invited VPS to assist in their investigation. VPS were able to provide further evidence of the presence of the contaminants, their source, behaviour, plus how and why such chemicals cause the damages witnessed by the vessels, which suffered when using the fuel.

Vessels suffered damage as indicated in the pictures below. This impact of this damage ranged from, complete engine blackout affecting main engines and auxiliary engines, to fuel pump corrosion, plungers sticking in the barrel, main fuel engine plunger damage, fuel sludging, filter blockages and elevated exhaust temperatures.

The damages arose due to the high pressure and temperatures within fuel delivery system, plus the fast movement of pumps, causing the chlorinated hydrocarbons to form hydrochloric acid (HCl), which quickly corroded the metallic surfaces.

It is worth noting, the fuel samples did not exhibit high TAN, but the above conditions caused the acidic reaction to take place within the fuel pumps.

Fuel Contamination Issue – a VPS Update on Challenges & Solutions

VPS identified 8 supply barges within the port that were contaminated with these chlorinated hydrocarbons. Correlation of VPS results showed that when the concentration of total chlorinated hydrocarbons was less than 100ppm, then no damage was caused to the vessels fuel delivery system or engines.

Following the submission of these findings to the MPA, in early June 2022 saw the MPA and an investigative journalist from The Straits Times visit the VPS Laboratory in Singapore, to witness just how VPS were able to detect the contaminants present in marine fuel. In a feature article by The Straits Times on 7th June 2022, the VPS work was reported as a CSI-type forensic investigation due to the advanced detection nature of the work.

Since the Singapore incident, a further major fuel contamination case occurred in ARA during May 2022. This time the contaminants were a range of volatile organic chemicals, phenols, styrenes, alcohols and ketonic compounds, ranging up to 40,000ppm (4%). Whilst these chemicals were different to those found in Singapore, they caused similar types of damage to vessels.

The MPA takes compliance with it’s bunkering licensing very seriously and has reminded all licensed bunker suppliers to adhere strictly to the terms and conditions of their licences. Highlighting, they will not hesitate to suspend or cancel licences where necessary.

GCMS chemical analysis, is not part of the current ISO8217 standard, yet time and again, chemically contaminated fuels cause unnecessary damage to vessels. This has heightened in recent times due to the advent of global crises & wars due to parties cutting corners by using cheaper blending components. Therefore, VPS would advise both fuel suppliers and vessel operators to utilise the experience and expertise VPS has in providing chemical contamination detection services, in order to protect their business, assets and reputation.


Photo credit: VPS
Published: 10 August, 2022

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