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IMO2020: “The biggest challenge will be optimal bunker management”

As of 1 January 2020, the sulphur content of marine fuels may not exceed 0.5 percent. How are the ship crews preparing for the transition? We visited the “Cartagena Express” in Hamburg to find out.

At the largest container handling facility in the Port of Hamburg, the 2,800-metre-long Burchardkai quay is bustling with activity. In one-minute intervals, container gantry cranes are hoisting boxes weighing tonnes onto the 333-metre-long “Cartagena Express”. The ship operates on our SWX service, which connects Europe and South America.

Captain Christian Nikolai and his chief engineer, Carsten Bublitz, welcome us in the ship’s office. We want them to tell us how they are preparing for the upcoming International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulation. As of 1 January, container ships will only be allowed to take on “light” fuel. While only fuel with a maximum sulphur content of 0.5 percent will be permitted on the high seas, the figure will be just 0.1 percent in the Emission Control Areas (ECAs). The current cap is 3.5 percent. We cut right to the chase by asking the chief engineer what the new requirement will mean for a ship like the “Cartagena Express”. Bublitz smiles and gives a brief answer: “The most important thing is good preparation.”

Several ways to be compliant

To comply with the new regulation, there are two options: install an exhaust gas cleaning system (EGCS) that allows the ship to continue using heavy fuel oil, or switch to very low-sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO). Converting ships to liquefied natural gas (LNG) will also ensure compliance with the IMO regulation. As well as consuming less sulphur, LNG will significantly reduce CO² emissions. This means that it far exceeds the IMO2020 targets.

For most vessels, operating with very low-sulphur fuel oil is the method of choice – as it is the most environmentally friendly one in the short term. And that goes for the “Cartagena Express” as well. Two months ago, the enormous undertaking of cleaning the ship’s fuel tanks was started. “Strictly speaking, we don’t clean the tanks,” Bublitz explains. “Instead, we mix the fuel that is already in there with a special chemical that we put into the tank before bunkering. So the tanks are cleaned via the sanitizing effect of a chemical reaction.”

Five tanks with a total capacity of 8,000 tonnes will have to receive this treatment. The chemical is fed into the tank via the sounding pipe in a three-stage process – first in a mixing ratio of 1:30,000, then 1:20,000 and finally 1:10,000. Bublitz is a bit anxious about the months ahead. “The fuel and the engine have to be compatible. Since each fuel has certain properties, such as its viscosity or heat value, we still have to gain experience with the new fuel.”

The challenge of bunker management

The “Cartagena Express” uses several thousand tonnes of fuel for each round voyage. “The goal is to have the tanks completely empty by December, so that we won’t have any more high-sulphur heavy fuel oil on board come January,” says Captain Nikolai. However, the new fuel will already have to be bunkered beforehand. This is also due to the still very limited number of bunker ports at which low-sulphur fuel oil is currently available. Why aren’t the ships already using the new fuel? On the one hand, this is a question of production capacity, as the fuel is simply not yet available in sufficient quantities. On the other hand, it is a question of money. The price tags for the new IMO-compliant fuels are much longer, and companies should expect to pay between USD 200 and 250 more per tonne. So optimal bunker management will also be important for cost reasons.
Source: Hapag-Lloyd

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